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India: Maharashtra Passes Legislation Against Social Boycott

(Apr. 28, 2016) On April 13, 2016, the state legislature of Maharashtra passed the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016. (Betwa Sharma, Maharashtra’s New Law Against Social Boycott Could Spark A Renaissance, Say Activists, HUFFINGTON POST (Apr. 14, 2016).)

The legislation prohibits the social boycott of individuals or families by caste panchayats (local caste councils) or any community and defines such behavior as an offense punishable with imprisonment, which may be up to seven years, or with a fine that may be as much as five lakh rupees (about US$7,522), or both.  (Draft Bill No. of 2015, A Bill to Provide for the Prohibition of Social Boycott of a Person or Group of Persons Including Their Family Members, and for Matters Connected Therewith or Incidental Thereto, § 4, Maharashtra government website (scroll past Hindi introduction to view English text).)

The statute also lists 15 acts that it considers to be acts that impose a social boycott on a member of a community. These include but are not limited to: expelling or causing to expel any member of a community from that said community; obstructing or preventing persons from observing any social or religious custom or ceremony or taking part in any social, religious, or community function; committing social ostracism on any grounds; and cutting off social and commercial ties with a member.  (Id. § 3.)

Under the new state Act, assembling or congregating in order to impose a social boycott is also punishable, with a fine.  (Id. § 4.)  The statute also punishes aiding or abetting in the commission of any offense under the Act with a maximum punishment of three years in prison or a fine of three lakh rupees (about US$4,515), or both.  (Id. § 7.)

Complaints can be filed by a victim or any member of the victim’s family, either through the police or directly to the magistrate.  (Id. § 12(1).) The Act also stipulates that the state government may appoint Social Boycott Prohibition Officers to detect the commission of offenses proscribed by the Act and to assist the magistrate and police officers in the discharge of their duties under the Act.  (Id. §§ 16 & 17.)

Background

The State of Maharashtra has seen several instances of social boycott of individuals “most often for marrying within the same gotra (clan) or outside the prescribed boundaries of caste.”  (Aarefa Johari, Fifty Years After Court Struck Down Law to Ban Social Boycotts, Maharashtra May Get a Second Chance, scroll.in (June 18, 2015).)  Village and caste councils, particularly in remote areas of the country, “wield immense power in communities which are governed by social codes rather than the law of the land.”  (Sharma, supra.)  Critics of the system argue that decrees of social boycotts or excommunication by village or caste elders have long been used as instruments of power and control.  (Id.)

It was reported, for example, that in 2015,

a mountaineer from a Raigad village, who had climbed the Everest in 2012, was boycotted by villagers because his wife, an advocate [lawyer] wore jeans and did not sport a mangalsutra [a necklace that a Hindu groom ties around the bride’s neck in a Hindu wedding ceremony] or bindi [a forehead dot commonly worn by Hindus]. The couple were isolated, excluded from temple functions and not even allowed to use water from the village tap. In April, 13 Dalit families from Osmanabad district were boycotted by upper caste villagers after a statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar was desecrated and the Dalits filed a police complaint.  The Dalits have been denied public water, access to grazing fields for cattle and even groceries in shops.  Even though the boycott has been called off, the 13 families continue to live in fear.  (Johari, supra.)

Previous Legislation on the Subject

Shortly after independence, the State of Bombay, which was eventually split into the States of Maharashtra and Gujarat, passed the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act, 1949, “to stop the practice of excommunication prevalent in certain communities.”  (Bombay Prevention of Ex-Communication Act, 1949, Preamble, LAWYER SERVICES.IN.)  The Act was challenged by the leadership of the Dawoodi Bohra community, and eventually, in 1962, the Act was declared unconstitutional by the Indian Supreme Court.  The Court held “that the exercise of the power of excommunication by its religious head [of the Dawoodi Bohra] on religious grounds formed part of the management of its affairs in matters of religion and the impugned Act in making even such excommunication invalid infringed the right of the community” to manage its own affairs in matters of religion protected under the Constitution.  (Sardar Syenda Taher Saifuddin Saheb v. The State of Bombay, 1962 A.I.R. 853, Headnote, The Judgments Information System website.)