Maharashtra’s draft law to curb social boycott is welcome but it needs to be strengthened. The notoriety of the actions of North India’s khap panchayats has overshadowed the sizeable number of cases of social boycott ordered by caste panchayats in Maharashtra. Known as the gaavki system, it is a gathering of villagers with long-standing roots and infl uence in the area. There have been increasing reports of individuals, families, and even caste groups being socially boycotted over acts seen by the larger community as breaking taboos or even misdemeanours under traditional customs.
The Maharashtra government has now drafted the Maharashtra Prohibition of Social Boycott Bill, 2015, that is yet to be introduced in the state legislative assembly. Although there are inadequacies in the draft bill, the general view is that the legislation is very much required. The murdered rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was in the forefront of the demand for such a law. In 2013 the Bombay High Court, while hearing a petition by two victims from Raigad District, directed the state government to draw up a law against such boycotts. It also asked the government to direct police stations across the state to treat such cases as criminal offences.
The draft bill defines a “caste panchayat” as a committee made up of a group of persons belonging to any community, registered or not, which regulates practices in that community, controls personal and social behaviour and collectively resolves the disagreements of and amongst its members through oral or written statements. The offences under the law would be cognisable, bailable and can be sent to trial. A specially appointed social boycott prohibition offi cer will detect such offences and assist the magistrate and police offi cers involved in handling such cases. The draft law defines “community” as made up of members connected through religion, caste and sub-caste and a social boycott as a gesture or act, oral or written, of social discrimination. A boycott will cover an act preventing or denying members from conducting or participating in any social, religious, economic or community functions. Any gathering that meets to discuss the imposition of a social boycott will be considered an unlawful assembly. The trial should be completed within six months of the charge sheet being filed.
The draft legislation calls for seven years of imprisonment or a fi ne of Rs 5 lakh or both if the order of a social boycott is proved. With the victim and court’s consent, however, the convicts can be ordered to do community service. The proposed legislation is promising but has its weak points. For instance, it does not look at inter-caste or inter-religious boycotts. Proving that a non-registered body gave oral orders of boycott would remain diffi cult. Some activists also want the state to provide protection to the victim and family as soon as a complaint is fi led rather than when the trial starts.
The Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan (Anti-superstition) Samiti has presented its own draft of the bill called the Maharashtra Restrictions of Functioning of Jat Panchayat Act 2015 to the government which proposes punitive measures. The samiti argues that the government’s proposed legislation is ambiguous and only looks at the limited aspect of social boycott, which is actually an offshoot of more pernicious caste and gender-related discrimination. It also says that heavy fines are imposed by these bodies on poor victims.
Media reports of cases in Maharashtra show that social boycott actions can follow couples marrying within the gotra and marrying outside the caste, married women not wearing the mangalsutra, women wearing jeans or “gowns,” and even parents not allowing their children to participate in Holi revelry. These boycotts deny access to livelihoods apart from prohibiting personal interactions among friends and even family. The trajectories of a number of social welfare and “progressive” legislations have shown that while the law certainly can put in place punitive measures to protect citizens, deep-rooted social practices cannot be curtailed or eliminated. Maharashtra also enacted the Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifi ce and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013, but its progress from draft to law was tortuously delayed, and the provisions considerably diluted in order to accommodate a number of political and religious apprehensions. The anti-social boycott bill will not hopefully traverse the same path.