In several pockets across India, there exist a shocking number of cases involving discrimination, oppression and even violence conducted as per village council rulings. Kangaroo courts of many Panchayat councils run a parallel justice system based on their own notions of right and wrong, and police as per their community’s moral traditions. Those seen as defying social norms and customs have in many cases been shunned by their community and even chased out of their villages. Horrific stories of Panchayat rule in North India are widely known, such as the diktat to rape innocent girls or suggestions such as abolishing the marriageable age limit in order to prevent sexual assault, and in recent times, Maharashtra too has seen a rising number of incidents involving misguided justice based on gender and caste doled out by community courts. For many years now, activists have been rallying for a law to be put in place that would prevent such violence and social boycotts.
Wednesday, the day before Dr. B R Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, marked a historic moment for Indian democracy when the social boycott of individuals by any person or any extra-judicial group, such as Panchayats, was unanimously outlawed in Maharashtra. The Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott Act categorises social boycotting of a person as a crime, punishable with a three-year jail sentence depending on the nature of the crime, and fine of 1 lakh which can be awarded, partly or wholly to the victim as compensation and rehabilitation, as reported by The Huffington Post. The victim or any member of their family can file a complaint with the police or go directly to the magistrate, and the Act ensures a speedy trial within six months of the charge-sheet being filed. The Government is also said to be recruiting ‘social boycott prohibition officers’ to monitor and identify such cases and assist the magistrate and police officers in handling cases.
“If executed properly, this law has the capacity to change the fabric of society. It is a renaissance and a recognition of individualism,” said Mukta Dabholkar, human rights activist and daughter of anti-superstition activist and renowned Maharashtrian rationalist Dr. Narendra Dabholkar who was fighting against caste Panchayats when he was shot dead by two men in August 2013. “He used to say caste is the biggest superstition in this country. This was a big part of his life,” his daughter told HuffPost India.
“The Act was required in the backdrop of prevailing atrocities inflicted on people in the name of tradition, caste and community which cannot be allowed in Maharashtra,” said CM Devendra Fadnavis.
“Social boycott will be dealt with an iron hand in my government. The atrocities inflicted by a handful of people in the name of ‘jaati panchayats’ or groups citing caste and community traditions will not be tolerated if it questions the dignity of a human being.” While his efforts in making Maharashtra the first state in the country to enact such a law are being applaud nation-wide, several question the act as a political move to win the Dalit vote; “After the Bihar elections, BJP has started a campaign to try an get voters of scheduled caste (SC) on its side. This is a strategy to enhance BJP’s voter base. BJP is making the same mistake which the Congress had made, it is not the doles which gets votes for a political party but a credible leader from within the community can get votes. BJP thinks that it can get support of voters through doles,” Jai Mrug, a Mumbai-based political analyst, told Livemint. A politically motivated move or not, the new law is being hugely welcomed as an effort to root out caste-politics and discrimination at the root.
Feature image courtesy of Reuters