Hundreds of caste panchayats exercise a strong hold on their communities and their verdicts cannot be questioned or reported to the police.
Pune: On the afternoon of August 28, Arun Naikuji, a 47-year-old auto driver in Pune, went to meet the ‘judges’ or the panch of the caste panchayat of the Veer Shaiv Lingayat Gavali sect that he belongs to. He made a plea before the judges to revoke the order of his exclusion from the caste that they passed two years ago and get him back into the caste fold. Instead of hearing his plea, the panch humiliated him. The next morning Arun committed suicide at home.
Five years ago, Dheeraj Pangudwale, a close friend of Arun who also belonged to his caste, had married a girl from another caste. Arun and his brother Appa were present for the wedding ceremony. The caste panchayat had came to know about Dheeraj’s inter-caste marriage two years ago and had instantly ‘boycotted’ him from the caste. The panchayat also ostracised Arun and Appa from the caste for attending the wedding ceremony. Since then Arun had been making futile efforts, requesting the panch to revoke the order.
“Due to the social boycott by the panchayat, nobody from our Gavali community would invite us for wedding ceremonies, cremation rituals, and all social gatherings. We three had filed a police complaint against [the] panch and they had been putting pressure on us to take the complaint back. That is why the panchayat had ostracised us,” Dheeraj told The Wire.
Sources said that the panch did not spare Arun even after his death; people from the community were ordered to not to attend his last rituals.
Incidences of social boycott of people for not falling in line with rules and conventions laid by different castes and communities is not an unusual phenomenon in Maharashtra. Taking note of these practices, earlier this year in April the state government had passed the ‘Maharashtra Prohibition of Social Boycott Act’ imposing a heavy fine and imprisonment on any group declaring the social boycott of an individual.”
According to Krushna Chandgude, coordinator, Maharashtra Andhashradha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS), who helped Arun’s family file a complaint with the police, “The caste panchayats work like parallel judicial systems. This is completely illegal. And since the operate secretly, nobody knows how many caste panchayats exist, but I would estimate it to be more than 1000 in Maharashtra.” Panchayat posts are handed down from father to son; not surprisingly, the same families run the panchayats for generations.
Caste panchayats enjoy uncontrolled power
These caste panchayats work at the district level as judge and jury, enjoying untrammelled power in their communities. They hear cases involving disputes and other social problems. Anyone unhappy with the verdict can appeal to an upper level panchayat at the state level that congregates once or twice a year, but are discouraged from approaching the police. The panchayats of hundreds of communities are held annually at Madhi village in Ahmadnagar district, when tens of thousands of people gather for a fair in March or April.
Many middle age and inhuman traditions exist and people of respective communities have to abide by them. The virginity of girls is tested by asking her to put hands in boiling oil. Newly wedded couples are supposed to sleep on white sheet given by the panch and if the sheet gets stained by blood that means girl is virgin. If a girl is not a virgin she is punished in various ways including pushing her into prostitution.
Girls and women are not allowed to participate in a panchayat – they are represented by male members. According to Mukta Dabholkar, daughter of slain anrtisuperstition activist Narendra Dabholkar, “Women are the ones who are exploited the most in this system.”
The panch extort hefty amount as fine from violators of their rules. Besides in many cases, so called violators are socially boycotted. Social boycott is one of the toughest punishments. Boycotted families are not invited for social community gatherings like wedding ceremonies, festivals and so on. They even have to struggle to buy stuff that they require daily. Kids in these families find it difficult to get matches for marriages.
Movement by MANS
In 2013, a father killed his pregnant daughter in Nashik for marrying a boy from another caste. Initially it was considered as a case of honour killing. However, further investigation by MANS found out that the father had killed her due to pressure from his caste panchayat. The incident led Dr Narendra Dabholkar, founder of MANS, to launch the drive called Jaat Panchayat Muthmati Abhiyan’ (drive to kill caste panchayat).
Chandgude said, “MANS is clear that our fight is not against the panches per se but against their exploitative nature. We try to counsel the panch, educating them that what they do is illegal and that is not allowed in our Indian judicial system. If they don’t listen, we lodge police complaints against them and help the victims. Our efforts have been successful – 13 caste panchayat in the state have voluntarily dissolved themselves.” But that didn’t help Arun, whose family has been left distraught at his death.