A Law against Social Boycott: Maharashtra Paves the Way - June 9, 2016

Maharashtra became the first state in the country to enact a law against social boycott of individuals or families with passing of the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2016. The Act was passed unanimously by the legislature in Maharashtra which is in lieu with the long tradition of social reform for which Maharashtra is famous. The Act can prove an important step in containing the power of caste panchayats that try to regulate the behavior of individuals.

Under this act, imposing social boycott on an individual or a group of individuals is a crime which can draw up to three years of imprisonment and Rs. 1 lakh fine (which will be given to the victim as compensation). There is also a provision to appoint Social Boycott Prohibition Officer, who will help the district administration and other officers in discharge of their duties. The Act also puts responsibility on the district administration to take proactive steps to prevent panchayats and other similar bodies from issuing calls for social boycotts.

It is the second attempt by Maharashtra to deal with the problem of social boycott. In 1949, the Bombay Province (present day Maharashtra and Gujrat) passed the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act to protect civil, religious and social rights of ex-communicated members of community. However, the Act was challenged in the court on the basis that it violates the rights of the community to manage its own religious affairs under Article 26 of the Constitution. After a long legal battle, the Supreme Court declared this Act as unconstitutional in a split decision with Chief Justice of India, B. P. Sinha disagreeing with the decision of the bench to declare this Act null and void. The decision of the Supreme Court to cancel the Act was challenged by a petition, which is pending in the Supreme Court since 1986.

This whole episode shows how deep-rooted are the social norms and practices and how it is a delicate task for the state to intervene in the matters of rules of social organization. Another important concern is the effectiveness with which administration will implement this law. The past experience of similar laws, which try to protect weaker sections like dalits, women, or adivasis, does not inspire much confidence about the impartiality of government machinery. So while the government of Maharashtra must be congratulated for its progressive act, it must be remembered that the real challenge lies ahead.

- Dr. Kalpana Dixit

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