If caste disputes aren't allowed to reach the police by use of threats and force, is a village really dispute-free?

Maharashtras dispute-free villages Can justice be delivered if caste is deniedMaharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti
news Caste Thursday, May 12, 2016 - 13:26

On the 125th birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar in April, Maharashtra became the first state in the country to enact a law banning social boycott. The Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2016 has since become a sort of a model law—one that seeks to tackle caste-based oppression and curb powers wielded by extra-judicial institutions such as community panchayats.

Minister of State with Independent Charge for Power, Coal, New and Renewable Energy Piyush Goyal is among those suggesting other states replicate the law. The Centre too echoes these views.

At the inauguration of a conference on Ambedkar's thoughts in Mumbai on April 14, Goyal said: “I am proud to announce that Maharashtra has become the first state in the country to enact a law banning social boycott. This is historic and follows Babasaheb's ideal of a society free from inequality. I hope other states will also learn from this.”

The enactment of the law does earn Maharashtra a seat in the list of progressive states, nevermind the spiralling cases of caste-based atrocities, especially in Marathwada. The BJP-led government says this new law will go a long way in creating an 'inclusive society', free of caste-based discrimination.

But anti-caste activists and social scientists in the state aren't convinced.

“These are just superfluous measures. How can enacting laws ensure the end of caste-based discrimination when society itself works on the basis of caste?” asks Sudhir Dhawale from Republican Panther Jati Antachi Chalwal (anti-caste movement).

“Cases of social boycott are very complicated,” says Deepak Pawar, Assistant Professor at Mumbai University's Department of Civics and Politics. “Not everything is on record. There is harassment at a very intimate, everyday level. Unless the local law and order machinery is sensitive to matters, laws will not really help.”

Familiar territory

Although Maharashtra's law banning social boycott is a first, this isn't the state's first attempt at ending caste-based discrimination. The previous Congress-NCP government had introduced the Mahatma Gandhi Tanta Mukti Gaon Mohim (Dispute-free Village Scheme) in 2009 to bring about harmony at the village level.

Under the scheme, every village was to have an elected committee that would settle disputes within the village itself.

The committee would be able to step in and address a dispute in the initial stage, thus preventing flare ups, rounds of police stations and years of court visits. This would bring about harmony between castes at the village level, the then home minster, NCP's RR Patil, had argued.

A look at the performance of the Tanta Mukti Gaon Mohim is enough to understand that such schemes are, at best, band-aid measures to hide the ugly reality of caste-based discrimination.

As a lived reality, casteism does not begin with and end with social boycott, physical atrocities, reservation, untouchability, or even all of these put together. The pride/ stigma runs much deeper, like the Marathi film Fandry shows us.

The film tells a simple story of a teenaged Dalit boy, Jabya, who likes a girl from his school and who comes from a rich upper caste family. Throughout the film, as he thinks of approaching the girl, Jabya is conscious of his lower caste status, and makes all kinds of effort to hide it.

His caste is a stigma that he was born with and wants to break out of. But the behaviour of others around him, in the way they address him or look at him, only pushes Jabya deeper into the stigmatised identity.

When his family is called on by the upper caste village landlord to catch the pigs that have been causing a nuisance in the village, Jabya refuses. He knows if he is seen chasing pigs in keeping with his caste-defined occupation, all his friends in school, including the girl he likes, will keep away from him.

For whatever else they are worth, no law or scheme can address discrimination at the everyday level of the kind Nagraj Manjule shows us in the sensitively-crafted Fandry.

“How can they,” asks Avinash Patil from the Maharashtra Andhshraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), with which slain rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was associated. “Our social structure is based on caste although it may appear otherwise. In almost 60 per cent villages here, Marathas are a majority and are able to keep the village administration in their hands.”

Patil says the composition of village level committees under the Tanta Mukti Gaon Mohim reflects the domination of Marathas in the rural belt. “Honour killings and inter-caste flare-ups have continued to occur, especially in Marathwada, despite the presence of the scheme. This shows how irrelevant it is.”

On paper, the scheme has achieved a lot. It is supposed to have resolved 36,294 conflicts in the three years following its introduction. Villages that managed to resolve disputes without cases reaching the police station were declared dispute-free and received handsome prize money from the state government. 790 out of 1134 villages in Pune district alone, for instance, received Rs. 19,31,000,00 as prize money over two and a half years.

Ironically, Khairlanji (Bhandara district), where a Dalit family was massacred in 2007, was also recognised as a dispute-free village in 2010. Despite the tensions, the village's committee members argued that murder cases, even if casteist in nature, fell outside the ambit of the scheme

In several places however, even such facile logic was not required; powerful Marathas could merely rough their way into lead roles in dispute resolution committees. Ashok Tagde from Manaviya Hakk Abhiyan that works in Marathwada says there have been several such cases in the area.

“In 2012, a Maratha strongman in Beed district's Charata village became the president of the village committee by threatening all challengers with a gun,” recalls Tagde.

“The scheme ended up suppressing several cases, including those of caste-based discrimination... The village committee leaders leave no stone unturned including issuing threats to ensure cases don't reach the police. Once cases reach the police station, the village and the leaders stop getting the doles. So suppression is preferable as well as desirable.”

Tagde recalls several instances when police too have colluded with village committee leaders in denying the registration of cases. “In Charata and Morwad villages in Beed, when villagers went to the police station to lodge complaints of harassment, the official-in-charge called up the village committee head to say his people had arrived to lodge a complaint. Police has refused to lodge villagers' complaints on many occasions,” says Tagde.

One step forward

The Maharashtra Andhshraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) had been running a campaign against caste panchayats across Maharashtra over the past three years. “Since July 2013, we have managed to get 13 caste panchayats dissolved. More than 80 FIRs have been lodged against caste panchayats during the same period all over the state,” says Avinash Patil.

The organisation's campaign has also exposed how caste-like groups have become normal in every religion. “Although people may call themselves Muslim or Buddhist or Christian, this only represents what's visible. What is at the core is caste,” notes Patil.

MANS had been advocating the need for a law against social boycott as part of the campaign against caste panchayats. The government's anti-social boycott bill, in fact, was developed on the basis of a draft submitted by MANS.

Patil agrees that a mere law cannot bring about the end of caste-based discrimination. “We have a very long way to go to reach there. But this is an important step forward, since this is the only law in the country pitted directly against the caste system,” he says.

The law says social boycott is prohibited and its commission shall be an offence.

The maximum punishment for it will be seven years in prison or fine up to Rs.5 lakh or both. Maximum punishment for aiding the commission of an offence will be three years or Rs.3 lakh or both.

It further states that trials shall be completed within six months of the date of filing of the chargesheet to ensure speedy justice. Social Boycott Prohibition Officers will also be appointed to detect the commission of offences, and assist the magistrate and police officers in discharge of their duties under the Act.

Mumbai University Professor Deepak Pawar welcomes the law because it shows that “finally, there is some consensus in our political class that practices like boycott have to be curtailed. This is something they should have done long ago”.

Nevertheless, in the fight for social equality, one should not pay too much attention to the law, says Sudhir Dhawale of Republican Panthers. “Such laws are attempts by political parties to show how progressive they and the government are. Although such laws are enacted on paper, it is the same system—the same casteist police force and government officials—that implements them. So there are never any results to show. What we need is annihilation of caste.”

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