Coming straight to the nub of the matter, let me begin at the very beginning by pointing out that in a very bold decision with far-reaching consequences, the Maharashtra state government has enacted a new law titled “The Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016. This new law explicitly prohibits the social boycott of individuals, families or any community by informal village councils which otherwise had become very common and pervasive. Social boycott of anyone under any circumstances can never be justified. This alone explains why even media and all leading newspapers have hailed this as a template for other States to follow!
It is most gratifying to note that this landmark law has received Presidential assent thus paving the way for its implementation. Doubtless, this new Act will help save many people from being boycotted socially by a majority of people. To be sure, this new historic law expressly disallows social boycott in the name of caste, community, religion, rituals or customs.
Truth be told, Maharashtra is the first state in the country to formulate a law to punish social boycott. This is truly historic from all angles. This new Act stipulates punishment which includes a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh and imprisonment of up to three years or both.
To put things in perspective, while stating the aims of the landmark Bill, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis while endorsing it very strongly in the State Assembly said categorically that, “There cannot be any compromise on human dignity which is supreme. In a progressive state like Maharashtra, which has glorious legacy of social reforms, there cannot be any tolerance of a social menace that attacks the very basic fundamentals of humanity.” It is tragic that even after more than 70 years of independence we still see many parts of our country totally mired in casteism, communalism, social boycott and a plethora of other social ills that plagued our nation before independence. This has to end now and for this to happen we need a strong national legislation like the one enacted recently by the Maharashtra State Government recently.
It must be added here that before introducing the Bill for debate and passage in the state legislature, he had held a series of deliberations with various social organizations and political leaders across parties to evolve a broad consensus. According to the Act, social boycott of any person will be treated as a crime and individuals or groups or families or communities indulging in such activity would invite stern action. No one would be spared who indulge in social boycott!
Needless to say, although there are provisions in existing laws, social boycott was not clearly defined which often saw perpetrators using loopholes to escape punishment. The Cabinet had unanimously approved the draft Bill on March 1, 2016. However, it must be mentioned here that initially, several Cabinet Ministers representing the Shiv Sena party had raised vociferous objections as they were unduly worried that it would interfere with the age-old traditions or ritual and religion.
But it must be added here that several such misplaced apprehensions voiced by leaders from different political parties were clarified in the subsequent meetings before it was adopted in the Cabinet and the legislature. The new law very explicitly disallows social boycott in the name of caste, community, religion, rituals or customs. It is most pleasing to note that Chief Minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis minced absolutely no words in making it crystal clear that, “A progressive state like Maharashtra cannot allow social evils in the garb of caste panchayat diktats or rituals. However a law alone is not enough to stop such practices, social awareness is also necessary.” He told the House that a couple was outcast by a Panchayat in Cidco area of Aurangabad and fined with Rs 1.45 lakh for marrying in the same ‘gotra’. He said 11 persons have been arrested in this connection.
Before proceeding ahead, it is imperative to answer some very elementary questions that are directly connected with this new Act that has been enacted in Maharashtra. This will banish all misconceived notions about this new Act. They are as follows: –
1. What amounts to social boycott under the new law?
It is quite palpable that if any individual or group tries to prevent or obstruct another member or group from observing any social or religions, custom or usage or ceremony or from taking part in a social, religious or community function, assembly, congregation, meeting or procession, the act amounts to social boycott. So is the case of challenging the freedom of individuals in the name of jati panchayats, religion, customs, or denying them the right to practice a profession of their choice. Freedom in this case includes the freedom to marry outside one’s caste, visit places of worship, wear clothes of one’s choice and use any specific language. Discrimination on the basis of morality, political inclination or sexuality also qualifies as social boycott. As does stopping children from playing in a particular space or disallowing access to crematoria, burial grounds, community halls or educational institutions with mala fide intentions.
2. How does the Act seeks to prevent social boycott?
A Collector or District Magistrate, on receiving information of the likelihood of unlawful assembly for imposition of social boycott can, by order, prohibit the assembly. Conviction of the offence of social boycott will attract a prison term of up to three years or a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh or both. Abetment by an individual or group will invite the same punishment. The offence of social boycott is cognizable and bailable and will be tried by a Metropolitan Magistrate or a Judicial Magistrate First Class. To ensure speedy justice, trial would have to be completed within a period of six months from the date of filing the chargesheet.
3. Why it was felt imperative to have such a law in Maharashtra?
No prizes for guessing that the radical decision to enact such a strict law was primarily a reaction to unrelenting pressure mounted from growing incidents of atrocities on individuals by jati panchayats or gavkis wielding extra-judicial powers. The highest number of incidents were reported from the districts of Raigad, Ratnagiri and Nasik and the largest number of cases of social boycott were attributed to inter-caste marriages. In 2013-14, Raigad reported 38 such cases. It must be added here that prevailing laws are frequently challenged in the court, or loopholes are exploited by the accused to escape punishment. This new Act also facilitates the framing of charges under IPC Sections 34, 120-A, 120-B, 149, 153-A, 383 to 389 and 511 if there is concrete evidence to substantiate an accusation of social boycott.
It must be appreciated here that Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who took the great initiative to do the cumbersome job of working out a consensus among political parties, argued that Maharashtra which is a state with rich legacy of social reforms, could not allow social boycotts. He very rightly pointed out that, “The Act was required in the backdrop of prevailing atrocities inflicted on people in the name of tradition, caste and community. Social boycott will be dealt with an iron hand. The atrocities inflicted by a handful of people in the name of jati panchayats or groups citing caste and community traditions will not be tolerated if it questions the dignity of a human being.”
4. What role did social organisations play in the passage of what is essentially a social reform legislation?
It has to be always borne in mind that social organisations played a stellar role in the passage of what is essentially a social reform legislation. It may be recalled here that four years ago, a campaign against the social boycott gained huge momentum and received widespread public support following the so-called “honour killing” of 22-year-old Pramila Kumbharkar. Pramila who belonged to a nomadic tribe and had married Deepak Kamble from a Scheduled Caste was allegedly killed by her father when she was nine months pregnant. The slain rationalist Narendra Dabholkar who had months before his murder, initiated a protest against social boycott and had fought against all sorts of superstition was killed cruelly by the social groups resisting any change of any type in society of ours! Earlier in May 2012, Rahul Yelange aged 30 years who was part of a team from Pune that conquered Mount Everest, faced social boycott in his village Budruk in Raigadh district because his wife wore jeans instead of sari and did not wear the traditional mangalsutra or put bindi on her forehead. In Roha taluka of Raigadh, there have been 22 cases of social boycott since 2010. Some 22 families of Dongri village had faced social boycott for varied reasons. In Raigadh, 34 cases of social boycott have been registered, out of which chargesheets have been filed in 28 cases and investigations are on in rest of the cases.
5. How many types of social boycotts have been provided under the Act?
The Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016 provides 15 examples of social boycott. These include obstructing individuals from following their religious practices or customs, severing social or commercial contacts, imposing discrimination within the community and expulsion from the community.
6. Who all can be punished under the Act?
The Act makes it abundantly clear that who all can be punished under the Act: Those who directly practice social boycott, instigate others to do so, or participate in any meetings with the agenda of imposing a boycott.
7. When was the first FIR filed under the Act?
The first FIR was filed on under the Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prtevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016, at Kondhwa Police Station, Pune, against those who ostracized Rudrap and others like him in the past, including the community-head.
8. When was the Bill passed and when it received the President’s assent?
The Bill was passed by the Maharashtra State Assembly on 13 April 2016 and received the President’s assent in July 2017.
9. Has such a law been made for the first time?
No. Earlier also Bombay had enacted a law against excommunication in 1949 which aimed to remove any legal disabilities that may be suffered by a person who had been excommunicated from their community, religious or otherwise. But it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1962 as being contrary to Article 26 of the Constitution after the Dawoodi Bohra community convincingly argued that it violated the community’s constitutional right to manage its own religious affairs.
10. In how much time should the trial be concluded under the Act?
To ensure speedy justice and facilitate time-bound results, the law stipulates for conclusion of trial within a period of six months from the date of filing of the charge sheet.
11. Who would be viewed as a caste panchayat?
Any organisation that delivers a judgment or issues fatwas based on caste, would be viewed as a caste panchayat, even if unregistered, the Act says.
12. Can victim file complaint directly with Magistrate or with police only?
There is a provision for victims or any member of the victim’s family to file a complaint either with the police or directly to the Magistrate.
13. Does the Act provide any monitoring mechanism?
Yes, a monitoring mechanism has been provided through social boycott prohibition officers to detect offences and assist the Magistrate and police officers in tackling cases.
All said and done, the Act will pave the way for the State to strictly enforce it with a larger objective of uprooting social evils in the name of caste panchayats. According to the Act, social boycott will be now treated as a crime in Maharashtra and individuals or groups or families or communities indulging in such activity would invite stern action which includes jail term and fine also! All States must emulate Maharashtra’s law criminalizing social ostracism! We all know how Khap panchayats in northern States like Haryana and Uttar Pradesh among others are running a parallel government and this is especially more visible in villages where very few defy their unchallenged authority and those who dare to do so are stringently punished and all this goes mostly unreported. This too must stop and even the Law Commission too has recommended enactment of a suitable law by Parliament but fearing loss of votebank no party has openly espoused the noble cause of banning social ostracism perpetrated by such khap panchayats! Narendra Modi being our Prime Minister must take a bold decision on this just like his junior Devendra Fadnavis who is also from BJP and is Chief Minister of Maharashtra has done as soon as possible so that the social boycott of the poor, deprived, marginalized and powerless hailing from the weaker sections of society too are saved from social ostracism just like we now see happening in Maharashtra! No delay and no excuse! Do it just like notebandhi! But the billion dollar question that arises here is: Will Modi act now decisively?
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,
s/o Col BPS Sirohi,
A 82, Defence Enclave,
Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,
Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.