The caste system might have started as a method of classification based on occupation, but the era which followed carved a hierarchy into this Vedic classification. It assumed new dimensions which have had a strong hold over the Indian mind for centuries.
Birth is a happy accident in which an individual has no role to play at all. Therefore, categorizing people’s social status based on no action of their own, and forcing them to carry the burden of that categorization for their entire lives (and even after death) is not only unfair but no less than a demonic act. This hierarchy belittles the efforts, lofty ambitions, ideology, principles etc of an individual, and provides little chance to them to mould life in a fashion they want.
Our forefathers, who framed the Indian constitution, were well aware of this menace and hence tried to do away with the evils of the past and provide equality of opportunity to the so-called ‘lower castes’. They tried to do so by providing them with several social (articles 15, 17, 23 and 25(2)(b)) and economic (article 46) safeguards. Educational, cultural, political and service safeguards were further added with subsequent constitutional amendments. To save them from serving under the boots of others and lead a life of dignity, the government came up with several laws like Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, Stand-Up India etc. Many of these have been implemented to some extent, but are yet to serve their true purpose, as we keep getting news of atrocities against Dalits, deaths while cleaning drains (the count in the capital itself has reached 77 since manual scavenging was banned in 1993), marginalization from mainstream society even in institutes of higher learning, and so on.
Adding to this wide range of discrimination is the pain of being ostracized from society, which can only be felt by those who have been subjected to such boycott. This practice is in vogue even in states which are experiencing high economic growth. Ostracization means people would stop associating with a particular family by business or marriage, people would mostly stop talking to them, they won’t be invited to any festivities or get-togethers, the village grocer would stop selling them even the necessary goods, and so on.
In this regard, Maharashtra’s Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act is a welcome move. It declares such practice a crime punishable by seven years in prison or a fine of ₹5 lakhs, or both. It is the first such attempt by any state, which prescribes penal provisions for practising social boycott in the name of caste, community, religion, rituals or customs. It also has finally given a form to the tireless efforts of Sri Narendra Dabholkar. The state has reported several inhumane practices by the Gavkis or caste panchayats in the past on the basis of clothing habits, worshipping rituals, inter-caste marriages and so on, violating the sanctity of the constitution, the IPC, the integrity of society, and the basic idea of humanity
This story is not about the Gavkis alone. There exist several such groups, under several names, in various parts of the country who continue oppressing the weak in the name of justice and social decorum. The crowd continues to follow them because it has always been happening this way, and most don’t have the habit of speaking up unless they are troubled themselves.
However, this act addresses the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. Its domain is limited to the idea of the social boycott, but it is not the only way that caste panchayats leverage their dominance. Sooner or later they will come up with other primitive and cruel methods to garner ‘respect’ in the society. Neither does the act offer special protection or rehabilitation or compensation to the victims.
This is certainly not a proud moment for our nation, when special legislation has to be put in place so that people can lead their lives with dignity and pride without any fear. Nevertheless, this act is a step in right direction, and should serve as a beacon for other states to put up similar laws to stop the age-old practice of robbing humans of their basic dignity.