Vivek Tamaichikar is a 28-year-old master’s student studying at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. He is engaged to Aishwarya.
Less than a year away from being married to his fiancée, Tamaichikar finds himself becoming the face of an online campaign to take on the powerful caste panchayat from his community that determines the validity of a marriage by making all young couples undergo a virginity test.
Vivek and Aishwarya are amongst the new breed of young, educated men and women from Maharashtra’s Kanjarbhat community speaking out against the humiliating practice of virginity tests in their community that has been prevalent as a tradition.
A ‘Vimukta Jati’ or a ‘Denotified Tribe’, the Kanjarbhats are amongst the 14 de-notified tribes which have 3% reservations in Maharashtra state government jobs and higher educational institutions.
While the community has been at the receiving end of discrimination, there are certain alleged practices institutionalised by the community itself which are regressive.
One such alleged practice makes marriage an embarrassing and humiliating experience for the couples from the community who get married. Newly-wed couples have to allegedly go through what is often referred to as a ‘virginity test’.
Right after marriage, the jaat panchayat allegedly forces them to go to a room and have sexual intercourse. A white cloth is spread on a bed. If the cloth doesn’t have blood stains on it after intercourse has taken place, it is assumed that the girl is not a virgin. The girl and her family are then allegedly publicly shamed and forced to pay money.
Growing up, Vivek claims to have witnessed the demeaning ritual and was adamant that in case he married a girl within his community, he would not take part in the test.
Motivated by positive court judgements regarding issues such as triple talaq and the Right To Privacy, he decided to start a WhatsApp group called ‘Stop The V-Ritual’ along with his fiancée in October 2017.
The group majorly includes young people belonging to the Kanjarbhat community, both married and unmarried, who want to bring an end to regressive values which the caste panchayats continue to allegedly propagate.
In the past few months, acts of protest by some members of the WhatsApp group have resulted in the issue receiving greater media coverage. According to Vivek, the impact of the younger people from the community willing to come in front of the media and openly criticise the practices of the jaat panchayats has been the major reason for the backlash by the conservative members of the community.
Priyanka Tamaichikar is also a member of the WhatsApp group and has chosen to come in front of the camera. She told the Quint, “I’m not the only one who wants to speak out about the issue, others do as well but I know not everyone has the guts. In fact, there is a lot of pressure on me as well. I’m doing it for the other girls in this community, not just for me.”
In January, three young men from the community were allegedly thrashed after they had gone to attend a wedding from the community. Vivek says, “The three kids came in front of the TV Camera (TV9 Marathi) and in the marriage… this was the background story. Since they are linked to this group.”
However, this wasn’t the first time someone from the WhatsApp group got into trouble. Siddhant Indrekar, a 21-year old undergraduate student and a member of the group, found himself being socially boycotted, on November 23, for protesting the panchayat’s alleged demand for money for approving a marriage. Siddhant said, “I took my mobile. And that is where I shot the whole ordeal. I called the police… and complained.”
While police took control of the matter and the test did not take place, the boycott from within the community continued, according to Siddhant.
“Since I have been coming in front of the media, an indirect boycott of me has been taking place… If there is a wedding from our community, they won’t invite me. They won’t talk to me. If there is a program in the society, they won’t invite me,” Siddhant told YKA.
The Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016 came into effect in July 2017. According to Vivek, this particular Act has made it hard for people from the community to overtly socially boycott the people challenging such regressive practices.
However, the Act makes even the existence of such jaat panchayats of the Kanjarbhats illegal.
Young people like Siddhant say that they aren’t just against virginity tests but against the existence of the jaat panchayats itself. Vivek adds, “This is not only about marriage. There are other such rituals… there are punishments for adultery. They don’t use the court or the machinery.”
And the punishments are also fixed. For example, the Kanjarbhat panchayats in Maharashtra have their own ‘constitution’ since 2000 which has codified all the laws, rituals and punishments which the people from the community are expected to follow. It has 122 sections in it and Vivek claims that it is known as the ‘kaali kitaab’ (black book).
However, Hasan Malke, a member of such a jaat panchayat told the Indian Express, “There is no misappropriation… the caste panchayat is not involved in conducting virginity tests… it is up to the bride and the groom to do what they want…”
While the Maharashtra government had passed an Act last year which outlawed and criminalised certain regressive practices, more definitely needs to be done.
The example of the struggles of these young people from the Kanjarbhat community shows the progressive youth and civic laws of the country are in a tough fight with the customary ones since they are probably followed, feared and respected more.
Only time will tell if young people from the Kanjarbhat community will successfully be able to counter such regressive institutions, laws and practices.