Insights into Editorial: Maharashtra becomes first state to enact law against social boycott
Declaring social boycott a crime, Maharashtra has become the first Indian state to introduce judicial legislation aimed at preventing extra-judicial courts and caste panchayats from committing atrocities. As the title suggests, the purpose of this law is to prevent and punish the continuing community-driven practice of social boycotts.
- The bill was cleared by the state legislature in April and forwarded by the central government to the president for his assent.
What amount to social boycott under the new law?
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.
- It also includes challenging the freedom of individuals in the name of jati panchayats, religion, customs, or denying them the right to practise 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. It includes stopping children from playing in a particular space, or disallowing access to crematoria, burial grounds, community halls or educational institutions with mala fide intentions.
How does the Act seek 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 up to Rs 1 lakh, or both. Abetment by an individual or group will invite the same punishment.
- The offence of social boycott is cognisable 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.
Other important provisions in the act:
- The Act also provides for compensation to victims. The fines imposed on violators will be used to compensate them.
- The Act also has a provision to withdraw cases with the consent of victims and permission from a court. In case of a withdrawal, the accused will have to perform community service.
- Under the Act, members of extrajudicial bodies like caste and community councils issuing decrees for social boycott can be punished with imprisonment up to seven years and/or a fine of up to Rs. 5 lakh.
- To ensure speedy justice, the law provides for conclusion of trial within a period of six months from the date of filing of the charge sheet.
- 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.
- The provisions include compensation to victims if a caste council imposed monetary penalties on them.
- An official would be appointed to go into complaints of social boycott, which would include preventing a person from participating in social and religious programmes, festivals, processions, rallies, and from using common institutions like schools, club houses and medical facilities.
- Those who support decrees issued by caste panchayats would also be treated as accused.
Why was it felt necessary to have such a law in Maharashtra?
The decision was a reaction to pressures from growing incidents of atrocities on individuals by jati panchayats or gavkis wielding extra-judicial powers. The largest number of cases of social boycott were provoked by inter-caste marriages.
- Prevailing laws are frequently challenged in the court, or loopholes are used to escape punishment. The new Act facilitates the framing of changes under Indian Penal Code 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.
- The Act was also required in the backdrop of prevailing atrocities inflicted on people in the name of tradition, caste and community.
Constitutional provisions in this regard:
Undeniably, the Constitution guarantees religious freedom to communities, and also guarantees the freedom of association.
- At the same time, however, the Constitution also recognises that punitive community action can severely harm individual freedom, dignity, and access to basic public goods. For this reason, it curtails the power of groups in various ways.
- Apart from the prohibition of untouchability, the Constitution guarantees non-discriminatory access to “shops, public restaurants, hotels, and places of public entertainment” (Article 15(2)). In legal language, this is known as the “horizontal application of rights”: that is, the Constitution grants individuals rights not merely against the State, but also against other individuals (and groups).
With its focus on caste-panchayat driven community boycotts, the Maharashtra law leaves a significant area of discrimination untouched. To address this, a comprehensive anti-discrimination law is required, on the lines of the Civil Rights enactments in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Maharashtra social boycott law, therefore, is an important step in the long-standing struggle for social inclusion. It is, however, only one step. As Ambedkar recognised, exclusion occurs along multiple axes: through boycott, through stigmatisation, and through segregation. For now, however, the Maharashtra law is an important first step. The devil, of course, will now lie in the implementation.