The caste system is undeniably a hierarchical social order which engenders and ensures perpetual exploitative relations between the dominant and subservient classes, prescribed by a majoritarian religious code. This antagonistic relationship manifests itself in the form of caste-based untouchability, economic difference, social difference, inequality of opportunity, inequitable distribution of land ownership, etc. While manifestations like untouchability, caste-based violence and asymmetrical representation are much talked about, a lesser-known yet widespread form of discrimination is the practice of social boycott.
According to Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar, social boycott was “the most formidable weapon in the hands of the orthodox classes with which they beat down any attempt on the part of the Depressed Classes to undertake any activity if it happens to be unpalatable to them.”
To understand this problem, it is important to note that a typical Indian village unit comprises a small minority of Dalits, undertaking servile jobs for subsistence. According to Minority Rights International, 80 percent of Dalits live in rural areas. However, their population is spread across the country, rarely concentrated enough in a single region to constitute a majority. This pushes them in a deeper state of vulnerability, already afflicted by a difficult economic and social position. Most Dalits working in rural areas, take up manual labour or marginal farming for subsistence, exposing them to vicious money lenders and consequential debt.
On the other hand, the dominant castes armed with an economic surplus, often weaponize their economic prowess and social capital to exploit Dalits in the form of social boycott. It is a systematically organised, pan-village effort to preclude the Dalit population from accessing the market and availing services. Often, benefits of government welfare schemes and subsidies are also denied. Strict enforcement of the boycott is ensured on the point of a bayonet, with non-compliers and Dalit-sympathisers coerced by the threat of being boycotted.
In May 2021, Dalits of Rohi Pimpalgaon, Maharashtra, were cut off from the village economy for a week. What agitated the upper castes to undertake this brutal form of suppression was merely celebratory assertion by the Dalits on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti. The police, quite characteristically, was reluctant to file an FIR, either because of the fear of their families being subjected to a similar treatment, or a shameful disregard for dispensing their duty to protect the vulnerable. The boycott eventually ended with interference from anti-caste pressure groups
Several similar cases occur on a regular basis.
In May 2021, a barber from Mysuru, Karnataka alleged that he was socially boycotted for providing service to the Dalits. In a similar incident, 40 dalit families were subjected to a fortnight boycott, just because a dalit girl plucked a flower from an upper caste’s garden. Both these events ended after intervention by the police and administration.
The most common causes for the shunning of Dalits include political assertion by Dalits, inter-caste marriage and entry into places of worship. It is time that the fangs of the oppressive Hindu majority are cut down for the greater good, otherwise, Dalits shall continue to live under the tyranny of the majority, having little or no autonomy over their lives, let alone equality of opportunity, which is a luxury only a few Dalits can afford.
Systematic organisation among the upper castes ensures that social boycott is stringently adhered to. In most cases, it is warranted by Khap panchayats and caste panchayats. These are unofficial groups of upper caste elders upholding mob-law and dictating social codes in villages. Wielding significant influence over elected representatives and even the third tier of the government, they are often in the news for authorising honour killing and lynching. Though these anti-social groups were outlawed by the Supreme Court, there is little clarity if the very formation of such groups is criminalised.
Implications of social boycott are saddening enough to make any progressive thinker give up in despair. It puts the Dalits in a cauldron of continuous vulnerability and denies them a life of dignity. While a plethora of rights is guaranteed to the Dalits in the Indian constitution, social boycott prevents them from exercising these rights. The guarantees of the nation are rendered useless if they become the much elusive holy grail which the Dalits will always seek, but never find. The much loved idea of fraternity, which finds its place in the preamble of our constitution goes down the drain, when a rare upper caste Dalit-sympathiser wanting to help the downtrodden doesn’t do so, because of the fear of being trampled by status quoist khap panchayats.
Though a recurring incident, the act of social boycott is often unreported. The Prevention of Atrocities Act has been largely unsuccessful in providing any sort of respite to the Dalits. Thus, an India-wide law is required to deal with this evil. In 2017, the Maharashtra government led by Devendra Fadnavis was the first state government to formulate an act to deal with the problem of social boycott. This act, called the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, is a welcome first step. However, a more serious effort is the need of the hour. Since the problem of caste has left no region of our country “untouched”, it is only rational for every state and union territory to have legislation prohibiting social boycott. Sensitisation of the police and gram panchayats is also a necessary step. The role of bureaucracy in implementing such an act shall be crucial. Some level of autonomy to administrative officers might lead to innovative programs for upholding the law and sensitising the population. Lastly, the creation of khap panchayats and caste panchayats should be a cognisable offence. These kangaroo institutions only perpetuate what the constitution painstakingly tries to eradicate.
The realisation of such an act would require pressure from Dalit activist groups and allies. For far too long, mainstream Dalit politics has centred itself around the issue of reservations and untouchability. While these remain serious issues, problems like social boycott, caste motivated rape, bonded labour, etc are less talked about and deserve special legislative and journalistic attention. The path to the realisation of equality has always had obstructions, with the most coming from our citizens. However difficult the path may be, the objective of its realisation is a moral obligation on the state which can’t be merely a pious pronouncement.
By Tanishque Gedam