Maharashtra’s long fight for a law against kangaroo courts
The new law will not just punish perpetrators of social boycott; it will also persecute community groups that run such courtsmumbai Updated: Jul 23, 2017 21:31 IST
Maharashtra’s law against social boycott came into force on July 3. Human rights activists have been quick to use the legislation they have been campaigning for. They have filed several cases under the law, which seeks to punish perpetrators of excommunication, a punishment that is often used by khap panchayats, or caste associations, and religious groups, to persecute individuals and families who question their authority.
Though it is the only such legislation in force, the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016, is not the first such law the country has seen.
Bombay, which included Maharashtra, Gujarat and parts of Karnataka, had a similar law. In November 1949 the province’s legislature passed the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act. While social boycott is a practice across religions and castes, the law was challenged only by the Dawoodi Bohras, a sub-sect of the Shia community and a mercantile group which is concentrated in the western states of the county.
The community’s spiritual head filed a petition against the law, saying that it violated his Constitutional rights. He argued that the power of excommunication was one of the tools with which he managed the affairs of his sect and that the law violated his right to practice his religion. The Bombay High Court upheld the constitutional validity of the law but in 1962, a bench of the Supreme Court struck down the act saying that its provisions violated Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution (relating to freedom of practice of religion and right of denominations to manage their religious affairs).
There was another attempt by Maharashtra to end persecution in the form of excommunication. “In 1953, the state tried to enact a law prohibiting social boycott. Somehow the law got stuck after it got permission from the lower house (of the state legislature) and it never took off,” said Hamid Dabholkar of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, a group campaigning for an anti-superstition law.
Hamid’s father, rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, the founder the group, had started the campaign for the social boycott law before he was murdered in August 2013. “The campaign had started one and half months before his brutal assassination. A pregnant woman was strangulated by her father in Nashik and our workers explored the reasons for the murder,” said Dabholkar. “We found that the woman was in an inter-caste marriage and her family was being tortured by the Jaat Panchayat.”
The activists organised protest meetings at Nashik and Latur in August, demanding a law to prosecute offenders. The last such gathered was held on August 19; the next day Dabholkar was murdered. The campaign for the new law continued.
Even in the absence of a law specifically targeting social boycott cases, the activists used sections under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to prosecute offenders. “Once we started the campaign many families approached us with complaints and we had nearly 200 complaints. We could use IPC sections (in the absence of the social boycott law) to provide justice in some cases. There was judicial intervention,” said Dabholkar.
In the two weeks that the law has been in force, the group has filed three cases – two in Pune and one in Mumbai – under its provisions. “Cases are across all sections: all communities and castes. There is no rural-urban divide,” said Dabholkar.
In India, where most families live their lives dictated by customs and social laws laid out by their caste and religious group, social boycotts can be devastating. Punishment for transgressing can include exclusion from caste and religious gatherings, public humiliation, debarment to places of worship, rejection of marital alliances within the group and even denial of funeral services in community-run burial and cremation grounds.
The new law will not just punish perpetrators of social boycott; it will also persecute community groups that run kangaroo courts.