Prescriptions against proscription
Umesh Rudrap was boycotted by members of the Telugu Modelvar Parit community, which he belongs to, for marrying a Buddhist woman. That was in 1991. Umesh, who is from Pune and drives a taxi for a living, had to wait for almost three decades before he could give a fitting rebuttal.
This year in July, armed with the newly introduced law against social boycott - the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention Prohibition and Redressal) Act - Umesh lodged cases against 17 committee members of the Telugu Modelvar Parit Samaj. The 2016 Act, which got presidential assent this July, forbids social boycott in the name of caste, community, religion, rituals or customs.
The Samaj, which is really a caste panchayat, had for all these years barred Umesh from participating in any social function organised by the community and had even issued a diktat forbidding community members from interacting with him.
"He was treated like a criminal," says Kutpelli Chandra Ram, secretary of the Public Concern for Governance Trust, a Pune-based organisation that is helping Umesh and 24 others fight for their rights. If proven guilty, the accused will face a three-year jail term and could also be fined Rs 1 lakh.
Social boycott is a tool used by "influential" members within communities to punish anyone who does not conform to their rules. It is a rampant practice, not just in Maharashtra but also in states such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Assam, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan.
In Chhattisgarh, social activists say, at least 250 such cases have been listed with the Caste Annihilation Movement, a Delhi-based people's group, over the last three years. The reasons could be anything from marrying outside one's caste or community, as in Umesh's case, to not following the diktats of community elders or for raising one's voice against orthodox beliefs.
Tejram Sahu is an electrician from Beltukri, a village in east Chhattisgarh. In 2010, when his uncle died, he did not shave his head. He also refused to invite the community for the mrityu bhoj or funeral meal. Consequently, Tejram's entire family was boycotted. Even the local barbers and grocers were told to withhold their services. Says Tejram, "We had approached the state human rights commission, but the officials didn't do anything."
In another instance, a woman from Magarlod village of Chhattisgarh's Dhamtari district committed suicide after her family was socially boycotted for her illness.
Sanjeev Khudshah, national convener of the Caste Annihilation Movement, which fights against caste discrimination in Chhattisgarh too, says, "They [the boycotted] are not allowed to use hand pumps or ponds in villages, they cannot procure rations from local grocery shops, their children cannot go to school, and sometimes, a hefty fine is imposed and when they fail to pay, more punishment awaits them..."
The Chhattisgarh government is in the process of drafting a law to deal with these social evils, but nothing has been finalised so far.
Activists associated with the campaign against social boycott have been garnering support for a similar law in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where khap panchayats reign supreme and are known to give orders to rape and kill for not following norms laid down by the community. In 2010, a khap leader of Karoda village in Haryana was awarded life sentence for killing a young couple, Manoj and Babli. The panchayat had opposed their marriage in 2007 because they belonged to the same " gotra" or clan and therefore the match was considered incestuous and non-permissible.
But rules vary depending on geography and community. In Uttar Pradesh, there have been many cases where khap panchayats have socially boycotted families whose children married into different communities. In 2015, two Dalit women from Baghpat approached the Supreme Court alleging that the khap panchayat had ordered that they be raped and paraded naked in their villages because their brother reportedly eloped with a woman from a higher Jat caste.
In states such as Odisha, Jharkhand and Assam, social boycott assumes another terrible shape in the form of witch-hunting. "Villagers label a woman a witch, blame her for natural calamities, even health hazards, and throw her out of the village or stone her to death. Her family members, especially her children, are targeted too," says Bhubaneswar-based advocate Sashiprava Bindhani, who co-drafted the Odisha Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act, passed in 2013.
Assam, which has witnessed more than 400 cases of witch-hunting in the last five years, enacted the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act in 2015. Both Acts provide for more effective measures to prevent and protect persons from witch-hunts, but witness protection is something both states are still grappling with.
The Maharashtra Act, too, has no provision for witness protection. Neither does it deal with issues related to compensation and rehabilitation of victims. Activists feel even the quantum of punishment is not enough of a deterrent. "We had proposed a jail term of up to seven years and a minimum fine of Rs 5 lakh. On many occasions, caste panchayats impose a fine of Rs 2-3 lakh on victims of social boycott," says Nashik-based Krishna Chandgude, state secretary of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. In fact, it was the Samiti that spearheaded the campaign to declare social boycott a crime.
There is not much awareness about the law among police officials either, says Krishna. When Umesh and others wanted to lodge a complaint, allegedly, there were efforts by police to discourage them from filing it. Instead, police asked them to prove that they had been ostracised.
In Chhattisgarh, activists have been trying shake things up, strong opposition notwithstanding. Yuvraj Sinha, president of the Raipur chapter of Jaiswal Samaj, an OBC community, says, "A law to deal with social boycott will end the age-old traditions. Nobody will follow the rules, nobody will marry within the community or follow the customs of the community related to births and deaths. The younger generation will lose respect for the elders of the community if criminal cases are filed so easily."
The argument over what is tradition and what's effete about it goes on.