Picture your community ostracising you even if you hadn’t committed a crime. Your ‘crime’ could simply have been offending someone’s sentiments. Devendra Fadnavis wants to do away with such social boycotts.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis deserves kudos. One is not talking about his engaging in open letter conversations with journalists – that would need a separate column. The CM is driving a law to punish “social boycotts” inflicted by the parallel and more real “legal” system that controls society. The law is bound to provoke controversy, and with it, would emerge public discourse that would create greater awareness.
The new law that is being championed by Fadnavis seeks to make it a crime to socially boycott any member of society. If there were a single most-hurtful action that could be inflicted upon any human being, it would be to ignore his existence. Man is a social animal and typically depends on others in his social community. Even if he were reclusive by nature, he would need to acquire something that he just has to consume. That would entail interaction with other members of society. If he were a persona non grata and everyone around him were to pretend that he did not exist, he would have a living death.
Even a jail term may not break the will of a human being to live, but when a person comes out of jail -even if he had gone in just as an under-trial – and faces the stigma that makes him unemployable, unmarriageable and even an untouchable, he is sure to contemplate suicide. Now picture your community ostracising you even if you had committed no crime against the law of the land. Your “crime” could simply have been offending someone’s sentiments. The consequences can be devastating.
Examples of disputes of this nature abound. Some have even spilled into the courts. A Parsi priest was not allowed to offer prayers in a temple owned by the community’s panchayat. The next-of-kin of a dead Bohri activist was not given land for burial in the community burial ground. A panchayat in Maharashtra imposed a “fine” on a married couple for getting married despite belonging to the same “gotra” (two humans having the same ancestral lineage of a common “clan” – typically the clan being founded by an ancient rishi of millennia-old vintage). A mountaineer who is reported to have summited Everest and his wife have been allegedly boycotted by his community because the wife wears jeans, and does not wear a mangalsutra around her neck or a bindi on her forehead.
Getting such a law passed would not be easy – which is what makes the initiative even more laudable. The intended law was talked about early this year. It has taken much longer than anticipated. Originally, one heard that the law would impose a sentence of seven years’ imprisonment while now the prison term is said to be five years. Like with the law against domestic violence, the anti-social-boycott law would come up against deep-seated prejudices inherited across multiple generations.
Besides, merely criminalising undesirable activity would not by itself address the social evil. “A law would not be enough to stop such practices,” Fadnavis is reported to have said. “Social awareness is also necessary.” Even a debate about the law would ignite introspection in society about how indulging in social boycott is inappropriate. One may laugh this off by arguing that the nationwide outrage against khap panchayats was of no real consequence to the elders who sit in panchayats in Haryana or Tamil Nadu. However, truth be told, the outrage was not without impact. Rome was not built in a day.
The law will also come up against religious extremists of all faiths. It will be argued that the freedom to practice religion includes the freedom of the religious followers to ostracise. Even the European Court of Human Rights bought that argument and refused to interfere when a Church-owned school excommunicated a nonconformist teacher. In 1962, the Supreme Court held the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act, 1949 to be unconstitutional. The CM could either skirt religious boycotts to play safe, or take the bull by the horns and risk a constitutional challenge all the way to the Supreme Court. In the process, he would achieve his desire to create greater awareness and introspection that the debate would provoke.