Maharashtra has become the first state in the country to ban village councils from imposing “social boycotts” that ostracise individuals or families for defying tradition.
Maharashtra’s new law declares social boycotts a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison, a fine of Rs 5 lakhs, or both.
Women and lower caste Dalits often bear the brunt of such judgments, passed as punishment for perceived misdeeds such as marrying between castes or dressing immodestly. The state last month passed the law against a decades-old practice of village panchayats, or councils, ordering social boycotts.
“The Act was required against the backdrop of atrocities inflicted on people in the name of tradition, caste and community,” said Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. “It is necessary to prohibit social boycotts as a matter of social reform in the interest of public welfare,” he said.
Under village council orders, individuals and families have been banished from the community, and denied access to temples, wells, markets and celebrations. In some cases, panchayats have even branded women as witches, and ordered gang rapes or killings as punishment.
Human rights campaigners called for other states to follow Maharashtra’s example.
“The law will help check caste crimes to some extent. It empowers lower-caste people and it empowers human rights organisations, as it gives us a tool with which to fight against village panchayats. We need a similar law in the rest of the country, particularly in states where (unelected) khap panchayats are strong,” said Irfan Engineer, director of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai.
The Supreme Court in 2011 described khap panchayats as “kangaroo courts” that are entirely illegal.