An unwritten social boycott scripting the fate of many
Many face backlash and are boycotted from their communities for marrying outside their caste. With the social boycott bill, that came into effect last July, there is hope for the victims.india Updated: Apr 09, 2018 08:18 IST
On a cloudy Thursday morning in January, 1990, in Pune’s Cantt area, Umesh and Manju walked out of their homes separately — anxious and excited. After a month of waiting, the court had given them a date for their wedding. Umesh, in his driver’s uniform, and Manju, in a Punjabi salwar kameez, got married in the presence of friends.
For 20 days, their families knew nothing. Then the two left their homes to live together. Umesh was 25, Manju 19.
They had to be discreet because Umesh had broken an unspoken but widely acknowledged rule — that marriages must only happen within the community. Umesh is from the Telugu Mudelwar Parit community, who have traditionally worked as dhobis. Manju came from a Buddhist family.
“We had foreseen disapproval from my parents but I knew eventually they would come around,” says Umesh Rudrap, now 53. A year after their wedding, on the birth of their son, his father forgave him. What Umesh hadn’t foreseen was the backlash from his community — which would impact not just their lives but that of their extended family and children in the years to come.
The community elects panchayat bodies whose main functions are to promote community development, but they end up holding sway over social relations as well.They invoked an unspoken social boycott of the couple, denying them participation in any aspect of community life.
Manju says, “We would never get invited for weddings (except very close relatives), or funerals or any programmes organised for the children. At my brother-in-law’s engagement, I sat with the ladies for a ceremony but someone else was asked to do the ritual instead of me. I had to keep quiet as it was our own family function.”
Twenty-eight years of social isolation and obloquy can take a toll. “I am tired now. Tired of trying to make people understand and tired of feeling helpless. The world is progressing but the community is only regressing,” says Umesh.
A progressive legislation is now providing help to people such as Umesh. The state legislature passed the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, in April 2016. It came into effect in July last year after Presidential approval, making Maharashtra the only state to have such a law.
While the Scheduled Caste and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is meant to addresses caste violence and atrocities, intra-caste issues have had no legal avenue. There is no official count of caste panchayats, but civil society organisations working on the issue say they run into thousands and affect lakhs of people across the state.
The Maharashtra act criminalises the practice of social boycott of a member by a community or village panchayat. It includes preventing a member from taking part in any community or religious function, practising any profession, marriage choice, access to community spaces and discrimination based on sexuality, political affiliation or morality. The punishment ranges from a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh to a three-year prison term, or both.
On July 17, 2017, Umesh became the first person to file a case under the Act. Within a year, social organisations have helped file 20 cases across the state, of which six are in Pune alone. While most of the cases have been registered for inter-caste marriages, other victims faced boycott for going against the decisions of the panchayats, on charges of financial misappropriation and for allegedly filing a rape complaint against a community member.
The Rudrap family admits it was not easy to take the matter to the police. “I finally had no choice as now both my children are of marriageable age. My son’s wedding was fixed but later broke up and we suspect that the panchayat exerted pressure,” says Umesh.
On the other side of the city, in the neighbourhood of Khadki, the Chinchane family, too, has hope of acceptance. It has filed a case against another Telugu Mudelwar panchayat. Ajit Chinchane married a Maratha girl, Maya, in 1999.
“For years, I have been made to feel invisible. My husband and I never received invites. Even when we tried to participate, people turned away from us,” says Maya, breaking into tears.
Making of the law
The state law has its roots in an agitation led by slain rationalist Narendra Dabholkar in 2013. That year, in a gruesome murder in Nashik, a pregnant woman was killed by her father on her birthday. The family was allegedly under pressure from the caste panchayat of the nomadic tribe as the girl had married into the Scheduled Caste community.
Dabholkar’s organisation, Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), took up the case and began organising protests against caste panchayats operating like kangaroo courts.
His son, Hamid Dabholkar, says the response was overwhelming. “Within a few days, we received over 250 complaints of boycotts and other practices of caste panchayats. It was a logical extension of our work against superstition.” In August 2013, Narendra Dabholkar was gunned down on his morning walk.
While the organisation continued its efforts, a key turning point was the abolition of one such panchayat in Mumbai. Krishna Chandgude, state co-ordinator of MANS says: “We helped 22-year-old Durga Gudilu and other youth of the Vaidu community to lead a dialogue. This led the panchayat to dissolve.”
The government was also prodded into action around the same time by the Bombay high court. Hearing a social boycott case, the court directed the state to check extra-constitutional bodies like panchayats. After consultations with groups such as MANS, the legislation was formulated and passed. “The Act will help in taking preventive action as well as resolving the dispute amicably. This will go a long way in keeping our social fabric intact,’’ says Dr Ranjt Patil, minister of state for home.
While MANS is satisfied that years of agitation led to the law, it wants a law at the national level. “States like Chattisgarh have approached us with a similar demand. But states like Haryana will perhaps never make such a law, so the Centre should formulate a national Act,” says Krishna Chandgude.
For Hamid, the challenge will be in its implementation. “Earlier, police would not know under which sections to file boycott complaints. The challenge now will be convictions, as boycotts are often unspoken, using pressure tactics which won’t be easy to prove,” he says. But Umesh is confident. Taking out a sheet of paper from a carefully wrapped folder in plastic, he says, “This letter is my case basically. On November 27, 2017, the panchayat sent me a letter saying that at a meeting on August 26, finally it was decided to make me a member of the community. Do they need any more proof?”
The Kondhwa panchayat president, Rajendra Mhankale, refused to comment on the case but denied the allegation that Umesh’s family was boycotted. Ganesh Nimkar, head of the Khadki panchayat admits that the Chinchane family were not made formal members but were included in community events. The court case may take years and there is a possibility of further estrangement from the community, but Umesh and Manju have found strength in each other. Stealing a shy glance at Umesh, Manju says, “It may have been lonely but we had each other. That has been enough for me.”