The 100-odd Valmiki families in Rakheda village of Uttar Pradesh’s (UP’s) Bulandshahr district are eagerly waiting for 19 November. A wedding is scheduled that day. The wait, however, is not for celebrations alone.
That’s when the community will know the status of their “social boycott” in the village.
Will the Thakurs allow the Valmiki groom’s wedding procession to enter the Chamunda Ma temple? This is the question on everyone’s mind.
“They [Thakurs] have relaxed the boycott, but things will be clear only on that day,” says Sunny Kumar, a friend of the groom. Sunny is one of the “four-five” men in the younger generation of Valmikis who is educated. He has cleared his Class 12 and works for a private company in Noida, some 60 kilometres away.
It was at this same temple on 25 October that a Thakur man stopped a group of Valmiki women at the gate.
A video recorded by the women, which later went viral and prompted police intervention, showed the man telling the women that the temple was funded by Thakurs, that it stood on land owned by Thakurs and they simply did not want the women in.
That same evening, three Thakur men allegedly thrashed a Valmiki man named Bunty.
The police booked a total of 14 Thakur men for these cases.
The Valmikis told this correspondent later that the temple prohibition and thrashing were part of their social boycott. They said it was triggered by an incident a few days prior to 25 October when some Valmikis walked out of a bhandara at the Chamunda temple after facing discrimination and humiliation. They were made to sit separately, amid filth, they said.
On 31 October, prominent members of both communities were called at the office of the sub-divisional magistrate in Khurja, and made to apologise and reach a compromise.
When this correspondent visited the village the next day, the Valmikis, however, complained of continuing boycott and resulting hardships.
What A Boycott Looks Like
Boycott meant that the dominant community – the Thakurs, with about 400 families – stopped dealing with the Valmikis altogether.
“Thakurs own most of the agricultural land. They have stopped us from working in their fields. They either employ Kolis or Jaatavs [other lower castes in the village] or men from adjoining villages,” a Valmiki man said.
“Eight out of ten of our men are dependent on field labour. They have earned nothing in a week,” he said. Day-long work fetches Rs 300 a day.
Thakurs and Brahmins, they said, owned most of the grocery stores and were turning the Valmikis away, forcing them to travel eight kilometres, on cycle or foot, to an adjoining village for buying everyday items such as milk and flour. “Only two-three of our families have buffaloes. That simply doesn’t suffice for the community,” a man said.
“Usually, a man rides a cycle to another village and gets grocery for three-four families at a go. That’s how we are managing. Kolis also run a few small shops, but under pressure, they are not selling to us,” he said.
Even the vegetable vendor who comes daily from outside the village, was being stopped from entering the Valmiki colony, they said. “The vendor, a Thakur himself, can’t afford to go against his own,” the man said.
When asked, the Thakurs and Brahmins rubbished the Valmikis’ claims as figments of imagination. The Valmikis, on the other hand, complained they were being crushed economically for simply standing up for their dignity.
A week on, the situation seems to have become better. Sunny told this correspondent over the phone that grocery stores have begun to sell to them and some men have been called to the fields. This has come about because cops have been visiting the village regularly, he said.
All eyes now are on the wedding day to gauge the Thakurs’ mood, he said.
Cases like Rakheda are by no means rare. Poor, marginalised and vulnerable communities are often subjected to such crippling social boycotts if they dare to take on the dominant groups.
In September, dalit Sikhs of Khiva Dialuwala village in Punjab’s Mansa district alleged boycott by upper castes and even filed a police case. A video of a man making the boycott call through loudspeakers from the village gurdwara went viral.
A Hindustan Times report said, ‘The diktat was to neither sell to nor buy anything from Dalits, not even farm produce, including milk. Dalits will also not be deployed as labour and won’t be invited to social gatherings, the announcement dictates’.
This was after the family of a six-year-old, who was injured after being hit by the two-wheeler of an upper-caste man, refused to withdraw the case they had filed against him.
In May, upper castes in Lhor village of Mehsana district in Gujarat imposed a boycott on a Dalit community after a Dalit bridegroom rode a horse. The victim’s complaint reportedly said that upper-caste people held a panchayat after the wedding procession saying they were “disturbed” as they felt the Dalits in the village “did not maintain their limits”.
In April, newspapers reported about a boycott of 30 Dalit families in Chhanagiri village in Odisha’s Khordha district by upper castes for over six months. This was after one of them lodged a police case for caste discrimination last year. Dalits were allegedly barred from shops, jobs and other essential services.
Boycotts occur within the same community too.
In September, 30 families of the scheduled Nayaka in Kotekere village of Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district alleged social boycott by members of the same community after they refused to hunt wild animals. The police met the community members and declared the issue ‘was resolved amicably’.
A Nationwide Problem
For the first time this year, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) published data on cases where only the SC/ST Act was invoked with no sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Indian Express reported last month that of the 5,775 such cases in 2017, there were 63 cases of social boycott.
A prominent case from 2017 was of Matyali village of Karnataka’s Bijapur district, where an SC community faced a month-long boycott by upper-castes following the violence that broke out after they insisted that a new circle constructed at the village entrance be named after Dr B R Ambedkar.
A report by The News Minute said that Dalits “have allegedly not been given access to water and electricity. The local grocery store owners and flour mill have refused to sell their products to them. Dalit women have been barred from working in the fields. For almost a month, the everyday lives of the Dalit community have taken a major hit and they are struggling to make it through the day”.
A senior official in the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) told this correspondent that this figure, by no means small, is highly under-reported. “It is a matter of great shame for the local police and administration that their jurisdiction is witnessing such ostracization in today’s time and age,” the official said.
Fifty-seven of these 63 cases were reported from UP, the report said.
Such offenses are booked under Section 3(1) (x) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (prevention of atrocities) Act, 1989 as ‘intentional insult or intimidation with intent to humiliate’, as was seen in the Rakheda case.
The NCSC official said that in most such cases, the office of the district magistrate concludes in the status report that ‘there was some problem but now all is well’.
“Administration mostly tries to resolve such conflicts and report a settlement. Officials even take it in writing from the SC residents that they don’t have any problem anymore,” the official said.
Hisar: Dalit Community Reaches Supreme Court Against Alleged Boycott
However, a recent case may be an anomaly – one that has incidentally put the issue of social boycott in headlines these days.
Members of a scheduled caste community from Bhatla village in Haryana’s Hisar district have approached the Supreme Court alleging social boycott for over two years from members of the Brahmin community following a dispute over drawing water from a hand pump. The plea sought a CBI probe into the issue.
The official said that the commission sent an officer to the site for a ground check, but the officer, also belonging to SC, concluded that the issue is complex with many factors at play and may be also partially inspired by the outcome in the Mirchpur case.
In Mirchpur village of Hisar district, in 2010, houses of several SC residents were torched by members of the dominant Jat community, charring to death an old man and his polio-stricken daughter, reportedly over a trivial issue.
Nearly 240 SC families fled and refused to enter the village until CRPF was deployed. Last year, the Manohar Lal Khattar-led government in the state launched a project on the outskirts of Hisar to rehabilitate the families. Khattar said the 258 displaced families would be accommodated on eight acres of land in Dhandur village.
A relocation package to the affected families was part of the proposal.
“The case is complicated with several undercurrents, but now that the matter is in Supreme Court, the commission’s jurisdiction ends,” the official said.
A November 11 report of The Times of India too questions the claims in Bhatla case. Titled ‘Bhatla caste conflict: Charges of social boycott fall flat despite social discord’, the report says,
During an on-the-spot assessment of the situation, TOI discovered that SC members are frequently visiting the house of village sarpanch Punit, who comes from the Jat community, for their personal work. Also, people from both sections of the society continue to take water from the same public hand pump where the dispute began.
A November 10 report by The Tribune says,
The two warring castes are sticking to their stance of “no talks”. The Dalits believe that the boycott is aimed at forcing them to leave the village. The upper castes are convinced the Dalits are keeping a non-issue alive to “extract money” in the name of being SCs.
With the Supreme Court asking for a status report in the matter last week, both are relying on the court to bail them out.
In the Mirchpur case, the apex court made an important observation in relation to social boycotts. It said it cannot pass an order to end it as it would be an "ineffective" one.
"What is the solution to end the social boycott? The courts cannot say that end the social boycott of Dalits. It would be an ineffective order," the social justice bench of justices M B Lokur and U U Lalit said in 2015.
Solution: More Laws Or Social Reform?
How to end this social evil is indeed a big issue, with caste panchayats a norm across rural India. Some argue that “an Act that deals comprehensively with social boycotts is the need of the hour”.
The only state that has such a law is Maharashtra that legislated the Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act in 2016.
Explaining how the law works, an Indian Express report states,
A Collector or District Magistrate, on receiving information of the likelihood of unlawful assembly for imposition of social boycott can, by order, prohibit the assembly. Conviction of the offence of social boycott will attract a prison term of up to three years or a fine up to Rs 1 lakh, or both. Abetment by an individual or group will invite the same punishment…
Interestingly, Mumbai (then Bombay) enacted in 1949 a law against excommunication that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1962 after the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community won its case that the law violated the community’s constitutional right to manage its own religious affairs.
Activists, however, advocate social reformation and not mere laws to fight the evil.
Sanjeev Newar, the founder of a social organisation called Agniveer, says boycott stems from the idea that people and communities are divided from birth and profession is to be enforced as per parentage.
“Medieval scriptures elaborate on this as well as prescribe punishments for not adhering to them. This is how society was fragmented.” Newar said.
“Unless society stands up against this evil and disowns them vocally, what we see across villages in India won’t stop,” he added.
Ajay Prakash Saroj, an activist in Allahabad who runs a monthly Dalit publication named Shripasi Satta, says an immediate goal should be to make Dalits economically independent.
“Social boycott is a pressure tactic to make the vulnerable community surrender to the bullying of the dominant community. If the former is not so dependent on the latter, this tactic won’t work.
“Unfortunately, we see most Dalit communities lack in land and enterprise. They neither own agricultural land nor business,” said Saroj.
Chandrabhan Prasad, a Dalit activist who advocates capitalism as the sole solution for their liberation, sarcastically told this correspondent that social boycott is an “improvement” from earlier times when, he said, the community members would simply be killed for taking on dominant groups.
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