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The caste aways

One year ago, a landmark law to end social boycott came into effect in Maharashtra. Instead of benefiting the victims, it has exposed the reality of living as an 'out-caste' in the state

Umesh Rudrap and his wife Manju. In July 2017, Rudrap filed the first police case under Maharashtra’s anti-social boycott law. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Umesh Rudrap and his wife Manju. In July 2017, Rudrap filed the first police case under Maharashtra’s anti-social boycott law. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Umesh Rudrap, 52, is no rebel. Rather, a year after his extraordinary revolt met with a slow death, he is no longer a rebel.

On 17 July last year, Rudrap filed a police case that earned him a line, if not a page, in the social and legal history of India. For a while, Rudrap, who lives in Pune and works as a driver for a travel agency, soared as he fought back against his oppressors. But a year later, not even the afterglow of that rebellion remains.

“The police, government and media have been of no help. I continue to suffer socially at the hands of the very people I thought would suffer at the hands of the law," Rudrap tells Lounge.

When Rudrap filed the very first police case under the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, he raised his voice against an act of injustice committed 27 years ago. Maharashtra, the land of Jotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who fought for the elimination of caste-based atrocities, became the first Indian state to enact this radical law—and Rudrap, its first “victim-beneficiary", filed the first case. In one year, some 20-odd cases, including three from the Shia Muslim community, have been filed under the law, mostly in Pune, Ahmednagar and Nashik districts. These cases deal with discrimination within castes, and exploitation citing outdated customs, extortion, and prolonged harassment.

In 2016, Nagraj Manjule’s critically acclaimed movie Sairat, commercially the most successful Marathi movie of all time, related the love-story of an upper-caste girl and lower-caste boy. Its dénouement shows the chilling cruelty of caste conflicts.

Manjule’s film wasn’t all fiction. While none of the 20-odd cases registered under the anti-social boycott Act is as egregious as in the movie, the cases do make the point that India is not only home to conflicts among castes but also conflicts within castes.

Hamid-ul-Hasan Mohammad Sayyad of Junnar town in Pune district. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

A law reborn

Though Maharashtra is the only state to have enacted such a law, the legal provision itself is not unprecedented. Sixty-nine years ago, the Bombay Province, which then comprised Bombay and Gujarat, had passed the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act, 1949. However, in 1951, the then leader of the Dawoodi Bohras (a Shia Muslim sect), Syedna Taher Saifuddin, challenged it in the Bombay high court, arguing that the Act infringed upon his constitutional freedom of religion under Article 25 and Article 26, which allowed him to manage his own affairs in matters of religion and also to discipline “errant" members of his community as the religious head. The high court upheld the Act, but the Syedna challenged the decision in the Supreme Court.

In 1962, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court gave a divided verdict. Only one judge was in favour of upholding the law. The four others regarded excommunication as the legitimate practice of a religious community that had to be protected under the Constitution. The Supreme Court held the Act unconstitutional. However, the reformist Bohra thinker, the late Asghar Ali Engineer, who was boycotted by his community in the 1970s for his progressive views, filed a review petition in the Supreme Court in 1986. The debate really was about the place of religious laws incompatible with the values of the democratic nation state. In more recent times, European countries such as France and Denmark have consistently stressed the precedence of national law over religious law. Engineer died in 2013, more than four years before the Maharashtra legislature unanimously passed the anti-social boycott Act.

But the historic law did not pass before another of its driving spirits had succumbed. Rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, who was assassinated in August 2013 in Pune, was also lobbying the Maharashtra government to have this law enacted. In 2013, the Bombay high court, while hearing a petition filed by two persons from the Koli (fishermen) community against their excommunication, asked the Maharashtra government to enact a law against social boycott. The Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), or the Maharashtra blind faith eradication committee that Dabholkar had founded in 1989, worked with the state government to prepare the draft law. In April 2016, the Maharashtra legislature unanimously passed the Bill, which received presidential assent in June 2017. On 3 July 2017, the law came into effect.

However, the rules have yet to be framed. A fact that has proved to be a loophole in most of the cases filed so far, including Rudrap’s. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior officer with Maharashtra’s department of social welfare, which piloted the Act, explains the “handicap". “Any Act, unless its rules are framed and published in the state gazette, becomes toothless, since there are no guidelines that the police or even the victims can refer to. While the police are filing cases under the social boycott Act, there is no consistency in invoking the right sections of law or in following procedures after cases have been filed," the official says.

In a tribute to the late rationalist, MANS has tried to help the victims of social boycott in all the 20-odd cases filed so far. The year-long story of the implementation of this law is not just about the victims; it is as much about the activists and lawyers who are trying to infuse spirit into a piece of legislation.

In a society where caste governs even the most commonplace pleasures and pains, ostracism can be crippling. Rudrap’s caste, the Telugu Madelwar Parit (dhobi in Hindi and Marathi), is part of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Maharashtra. In 1990, Rudrap married Manju, a Buddhist, and the caste panchayat of the Telugu Madelwar Parit Samaj immediately declared them outcasts. Ironically, Buddhists do not recognize caste. Rudrap, Manju, and their 26-year-old son and 24-year-old daughter do not get invited to community gatherings and weddings. They cannot attend funerals, and even routine interactions or socializing with other families are prohibited.

Rudrap’s easy demeanour hides his angst. Between 1990-2018, as India transformed from a third-world socialist behemoth into one of the fastest-growing economies, Rudrap’s life changed little. Over the past one year, his only solace has been the solidarity between his family and 40 others from the same caste who also face the wrath of the jaat panchayat.

“Some 100-odd people are bearing the brunt of social boycott for inter-caste marriages. They haven’t filed the cases, but a lot depends on what happens in my case. If my case reaches a logical conclusion and the jaat panchayat is asked to mend its ways, it would give some relief to these families too," Rudrap says.

It was after the police sent him away that Rudrap got in touch with Nashik-based social activist Krishna Chandugade, coordinator of the Jaat Panchayat Muthmaati Abhiyan (Campaign to Root Out Caste Panchayats) started by Dabholkar in 2013. Ranjana Gavande, a lawyer and MANS functionary based in Sangamner in Ahmednagar district, is part of it. “Dr Dabholkar’s murder numbed our workers and all progressive-minded people in the country. But it also fired up MANS activists to apply themselves more strongly to the campaign against the excesses of jaat panchayats," she says.

Gavande has taken up the cases of a number of victims. “The irony is that the law has not made much positive difference for the victims. The caste panchayats continue to torment them even after the offences have been registered under this law," she says.

The cases Gavande cites point to the excesses of caste panchayats. In 2011, Manik Hatkar of Paregaon village in Ahmednagar district was ostracized by the Tirumali Samaj Jat Panchayat, a nomadic tribe, after his inter-caste marriage. “The panchayat also ostracized 10 other families for keeping social contacts with me. In 2013, the panchayat asked us to pay 27 lakh to take us back into the caste," says Hatkar, a farm labourer. In August 2017, Hatkar filed a case under the new law.

“This was the first case under the Act in which the three accused were remanded to police custody for nine days," Gavande says. Undeterred, however, the panchayat ostracized even Hatkar’s friend Baburao Phulmali, who has also married outside his caste, for speaking out against the practice of social boycott. Phulmali, too, filed a case on 10 August 2017 in Ahmednagar.

“There is a deep economic divide in this caste. Some members are extremely poor and illiterate, others are very rich and influential. The panchayat members are mostly from the latter section and they appear to have some clout with local politicians from the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and NCP (Nationalist Congress Party)," Gavande adds.

Since she personally followed up Hatkar’s case, there has been some progress. “But in Phulmali’s case, as in another case filed in Ahmednagar from the same caste, there is tremendous political pressure on the police," Gavande alleges, though she notes that chargesheets have been filed in both cases. Both Hatkar and Phulmali believe the jaat panchayat should be dissolved. “It is an exploitative and extortionist body," Phulmali says.

The caste panchayat writ can affect every private sphere of life. For instance, it can determine if the victim’s children can marry into the caste. In June 2017, a month before he filed the complaint, caste panchayat members allegedly threatened Rudrap’s son’s would-be-in-laws with boycott. The family, also from Rudrap’s caste, gave in. Rudrap’s son is yet to marry.

The social boycott has also led to other problems. To get the special benefits guaranteed by law—quota in education and jobs—Rudrap has to furnish proof of caste certified by the caste panchayat. While he has the document, his children don’t.

Other cases filed under the Act show the boycott has been even more inhuman. A Muslim woman in Rahata, Ahmednagar district, who divorced her differently abled husband and remarried, was not allowed to attend her mother’s funeral. In Mumbai, often described as the melting pot of caste and communal identities, 66-year-old Prabhakar Bhosle of the Ghadshi Samaj (an OBC caste that traditionally played the shehnai at social or political functions) was declared an outcast in 1999 because he failed to attend his cousin’s funeral in Mumbai while he was away on work in Nashik. In 2016, Bhosle’s elder son died at the age of 33. “Not one member of my caste visited me to mourn the death," Bhonsle says.

The Act, which can be invoked along with other relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code, outlaws an assembly aimed at discussing a social boycott imposed on any member of a community, terming such gatherings “unlawful". It also says that every person convening and organizing such an assembly and every member participating in it could be punishable with a prison term of up to three years and a penalty of up to 1 lakh, or both. It adds that any action of social boycott, committed after the Act comes into force, would be considered void. The offence, however, is bailable.

Rudrap’s was a case that could have dealt a blow to the stronghold of caste. But the chargesheet was filed only in January, almost seven months after he filed the complaint.

The 17 accused named by Rudrap include Rajendra Mhakale, president of the Telugu Madelwar Parit Samaj Panchayat, who is a senior officer at the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company in Pune. When contacted, Mhakale accepted he was one of the accused but refused to comment on the case “since the matter is legal"; he added, however, that it was not about jaat panchayat (a committee usually comprising caste elders) excesses at all. “We don’t have the kind of jaat panchayat other communities have. Ours is a charitable organization. Rudrap and some people want to become members of the caste and their application is in the process. We will most likely settle it out of court," Mhakale says.

Rudrap says: “I am not going to (withdraw the case). These people dismissed my requests to take me back into the caste when I had no legal protection. Now, since I have filed the case, I am going to fight it out."

Milind Gaikwad, inspector at the Kondhwa police station, says the chargesheet was filed around six months ago and the trial is expected to begin soon. He says due processes took time.

The caste panchayat scene from the 2016 Marathi film ‘Sairat’.

Indifference follows boycott

Rudrap tells a different story. “The police asked me to settle the matter before it reaches trial. I was frustrated by their indifference and delaying tactics but I told them I would withdraw the case on the first day of the trial, provided we are taken back into the caste fold," he says. “I want this case to enter the government records so that it doesn’t only remain a matter between the panchayat and my family."

After he filed the case, Rudrap says the panchayat met and passed a resolution saying it was ready to take his family and him back into their caste. He wants a court verdict. “Some 40 families have been boycotted by the panchayat for the same reason of inter-caste marriage."

Hamid Dabholkar of MANS says the implementation of the law is far from satisfactory—chargesheets have been filed in only 25% of the cases so far.

Nandini Jadhav, a Pune-based lawyer, human rights activist and executive president of the district unit of MANS, who helped victims file cases in at least six instances, says: “Their (police) indifference is manifest in the cases registered so far and the complaints of social boycott I have received where the victims have not filed cases. In almost every case, including Rudrap’s, which should have been made the model example, there has been a delay to file the chargesheet and act against the accused. Despite informal complaints by victims or MANS activists about possible attacks by caste panchayat members on the victims to stop them from registering cases, the police did not act in time, thus emboldening the oppressors."

Jadhav, who helped Rudrap file his complaint, lists out some other incidents of social boycott which have not, so far, taken the form of official complaints but confirm the severity of the problem. “A police constable from the Vadar community in Akkalkot was boycotted when he refused to abide by the tribe’s custom to sacrifice a lamb. Such is the stranglehold of the panchayat that even a police constable has not been able to muster the courage to file a complaint," Jadhav says.

Cutting across religious divides

The Telugu Madelwar Parit Samaj has a small numerical presence in the region Rudrap comes from, community elder Nandkishor Ratnapal tells us. Pune city, which has a population of nearly six million, has some 750 families of this caste accounting for less than 5,000 people.

What happens within the obscure reserves of such a closed community rarely gets out. Rudrap dared to change this when he filed his case. Several caste members, like Ratnapal, who share Rudrap’s view that “the panchayat is holding on to regressive concepts of caste purity", backed him.

Kutpelli Chandra Ram, a senior caste member who works for an advocacy group called Public Concern for Governance Trust, says the younger generation simply does not want to follow “dated" ideas of caste purity. “In 2013, we gave a list of 76 boys and girls from our caste who had married outside the caste. We requested the panchayat to take them back. We also told them a law against social boycott was coming up, but the members dismissed us," Kutpelli says.

The two cases from the Muslim community Gavande is fighting represent a mix of social evils—prejudices against women in a patriarchal society, caste or clan dominance over individual choices, and social boycott as a means of punishment.

Last year, Fakir Sheikh, a 43-year-old resident of Sangamner who belongs to a nomadic tribe called Waghwale Muslim, married a woman from his tribe who was divorced. The tribe’s panchayat first decreed a boycott, then ordered Sheikh’s parents to perform a funeral ritual for him if they wanted the boycott lifted. “His family refused to perform such a weird ritual and they continue to suffer the boycott. This year they have filed a complaint," Gavande says.

Hamid-ul-Hasan Mohammad Sayyad, a 36-year-old Shia Muslim from Junnar town of Pune district, and his family—wife and two young sons—were ostracized by the Shia Sayyad Jamat in November 2015 on charges of misappropriating the funds of a community trust where he was a manager. But he believes it was his social activism and modernist ideas that brought on the conflict. Sayyad, who writes stirring Urdu shayari (poetry) under the pen name Hamid Abidi and has been striving for the education of Muslim girls, alleges that the Jamat has problems with his work. “The charges of misappropriation have not been proven to date but my family and I continue to suffer the boycott," he claims, when we meet him at his modest grocery shop in Junnar.

The Junnar police filed an FIR under the social boycott Act after 19 months. “When we went to the police station to file the complaint in October 2017, some 200 people gathered outside the police station to put pressure (on the police)," says Jadhav, who accompanied Sayyad.

The social boycott over nearly three years has taken a severe economic and psychological toll on Sayyad’s family. “In 2013, when I set up this grocery shop, it was among the top five shops in Junnar. I took a loan of 2 lakh. But now, the shop barely runs, as most customers from my community avoid coming here," he says.

He points out the “futility" of the law in delivering justice in time. “What is the point in making such a crippled law which is not able to stand on its feet?" he asks.

Advocate and MANS activist Ranjana Gavande at her office-home in Sangamner, Ahmednagar district. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Caste in stone

Anand Teltumbde, civil rights activist, commentator, author of The Persistence Of Caste: The Khairlanji Murders and India’s Hidden Apartheid, amongst notable books, and a professor of Big Data analytics at the Goa Institute of Management, identifies “caste" as the central problem in all these cases. “Unless you annihilate caste, you may not really achieve such goals in practice." However, he welcomes the legislation itself. “At least on paper it reads well. It says the trial must be completed within six months and provides for some punishment. If the experience is that the police are indifferent, the Act will meet still-death. There will be an overlap with the Atrocities Act (The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act) if Dalits are involved. But its provisions seem to extend beyond. Under it, all kinds of caste practices are potentially criminalized. But it all depends on the implementation," he adds.

Teltumbde warns against the selective treatment the police may mete out to victims, depending on how powerful or well-connected they are. “It would be worse than not having the Act. Unless there is a severe punishment for the police for dereliction of duty, intentional or unintentional, such laws will only prove counterproductive. Even the atrocities Act became toothless despite such a provision. There is a plethora of cases to prove that police misdemeanour was responsible for failing the cases, but one hardly knows of any police officer having been punished," he says.

Shaileshkumar Darokar, a scholar on caste issues and chairperson of the Mumbai-based Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies founded by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, agrees with the centrality of caste in such atrocities, but also makes a point about the general alienation of some castes and communities from the mainstream.

“The castes and communities which report the excesses of jaat panchayats are typically those which do not have access to the formal system of delivery of justice. These social groups are the real victims of the caste system in the sense that they don’t get any privileges and benefits associated with it, like education, social status, white-collar jobs, and wider acceptance by the larger society," he says.

In such cases, social exclusion works in two broad ways. “One, since these castes and tribes are lower down the caste hierarchy, they face the first level of mass exclusion by the upper castes," he explains. And so, these castes and tribes react to the exclusion by turning inwards and forging close bonds among themselves by setting up their own customs and rules. “For instance, marriages have to be arranged within the tribes or castes only to protect the caste identity. If a member breaks this rule, the caste panchayat acts in repressive ways because it feels that the order it has tried to set up has been challenged," Darokar adds.

Rudrap is not a caste expert. But his social exclusion from his small clan has made him a victim, who, with his modest resources, has picked up a fight that could determine the fate of a historic piece of legislation. He wants to be taken back into his caste. But he also wants his case to serve a larger cause. “This is not about me only. Many people from my caste have married outside the caste," he reiterates. “Their future depends on my case. I want justice for them as well."

All about the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2017

The Act, which can be invoked along with other relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code, stipulates against an assembly with the view or intention to deliberate on imposing social boycott on any member of a community and terms such a gathering “unlawful". It also says that every person convening and organizing such assembly and every member participating in it could be punishable with a prison term of up to three years and a penalty of up to 1 lakh, or both. It adds that any action of social boycott, from the date of commencement of this Act, would be considered void and of no effect. Finally, it stipulates that any caste panchayat, which imposes or leads to the imposition of social boycott, would be deemed to have committed an offence liable to be punished. Any offence punishable under it would be cognizable, bailable and triable by a first-class judicial magistrate.

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