One of the last good deeds that Pranab Mukherjee did as President of India was to give his assent to an Act that has been pending for a year since it was passed by the state legislature of Maharashtra.
Last month, Mukherjee gave a nod to the Maharashtra Prohibition of Social Boycott Act, 2015, which had been passed on 13 April 2016, but was sent to the Centre for review before it could be enacted. With the law coming into effect, atrocities based on caste, especially upjaati (sub-caste), are expected to decline over time, though, like any other legal provision, its successful implementation is tied up with a change in social mindset.
The social evil that the law addresses is pervasive and persistent: one of exclusion of certain groups from living a full life, accessing public benefits, participating in festivals and community rituals and so on, all of which are determined by a kangaroo court, run by the elders of a town or village as penalty for a perceived crime. A typical example of it would be people being persecuted, even killed, for daring to marry outside their caste or for trespassing on the social and economic terrains of their so-called social superiors.
With the presidential go-ahead, apart from the courts, no individual, group or organisation can no longer sit on judgment on anyone and/or discriminate against them in any sphere of life. Those accused of doing so, could be awarded a jail term of up seven years, a fine of up to ₹5 lakh, or both, depending on the case registered against them.
Last year, after the law was passed, HuffPost India spoke to human rights activists fighting for such an Act for a long time, including Mukta Dabholkar, daughter of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, who lobbied for it as well until he was assassinated in 2013.
Most social-justice workers, while delighted by the passage of such a landmark legislation, were cautiously optimistic. With the appointment of special officers to detect and act upon instances of social boycott, the chances of corruption trickling into the system was feared. When the poor and disenfranchised, belonging to lower castes, are pitted agains the rich and influential, anyone can guess which way the odds are tilted.
As The Indian Express reported, the necessity for such a law was acutely felt in Maharashtra, where there is a rising trend of atrocities perpetrated by jaati panchayats, with 38 such cases reported from Raigad district in 2013-14 alone. Still, social boycott is less widespread in Maharashtra than, say, in Uttar Pradesh, experts say, and therefore more likely to be checked by the law.
The biggest deterrent to implementing the law, however, is in the fear of dire consequences that people of lower castes harbour for complaining against more powerful members of their community. In some cases, a legitimate grievance may incite worse ostracization and end up deepening inter-caste conflicts.
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