Posts Tagged ‘Maharashtra

In closed communities, social boycott is akin to living death. Activists and citizens in different states are rallying for the passage of laws that could change this primeval practice. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • LEGALLY BLIND: A khap panchayat in progress in Hissar, Haryana. Khaps are notorious for their regressive diktats; Pic: Getty images

Umesh Rudrap was boycotted by members of the Telugu Modelvar Parit community, which he belongs to, for marrying a Buddhist woman. That was in 1991. Umesh, who is from Pune and drives a taxi for a living, had to wait for almost three decades before he could give a fitting rebuttal.

This year in July, armed with the newly introduced law against social boycott – the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention Prohibition and Redressal) Act – Umesh lodged cases against 17 committee members of the Telugu Modelvar Parit Samaj. The 2016 Act, which got presidential assent this July, forbids social boycott in the name of caste, community, religion, rituals or customs.

The Samaj, which is really a caste panchayat, had for all these years barred Umesh from participating in any social function organised by the community and had even issued a diktat forbidding community members from interacting with him.

“He was treated like a criminal,” says Kutpelli Chandra Ram, secretary of the Public Concern for Governance Trust, a Pune-based organisation that is helping Umesh and 24 others fight for their rights. If proven guilty, the accused will face a three-year jail term and could also be fined Rs 1 lakh.

Social boycott is a tool used by “influential” members within communities to punish anyone who does not conform to their rules. It is a rampant practice, not just in Maharashtra but also in states such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Assam, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan.

In Chhattisgarh, social activists say, at least 250 such cases have been listed with the Caste Annihilation Movement, a Delhi-based people’s group, over the last three years. The reasons could be anything from marrying outside one’s caste or community, as in Umesh’s case, to not following the diktats of community elders or for raising one’s voice against orthodox beliefs.

Tejram Sahu is an electrician from Beltukri, a village in east Chhattisgarh. In 2010, when his uncle died, he did not shave his head. He also refused to invite the community for the mrityu bhoj or funeral meal. Consequently, Tejram’s entire family was boycotted. Even the local barbers and grocers were told to withhold their services. Says Tejram, “We had approached the state human rights commission, but the officials didn’t do anything.”

In another instance, a woman from Magarlod village of Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district committed suicide after her family was socially boycotted for her illness.

Sanjeev Khudshah, national convener of the Caste Annihilation Movement, which fights against caste discrimination in Chhattisgarh too, says, “They [the boycotted] are not allowed to use hand pumps or ponds in villages, they cannot procure rations from local grocery shops, their children cannot go to school, and sometimes, a hefty fine is imposed and when they fail to pay, more punishment awaits them…”

The Chhattisgarh government is in the process of drafting a law to deal with these social evils, but nothing has been finalised so far.

Activists associated with the campaign against social boycott have been garnering support for a similar law in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where khap panchayats reign supreme and are known to give orders to rape and kill for not following norms laid down by the community. In 2010, a khap leader of Karoda village in Haryana was awarded life sentence for killing a young couple, Manoj and Babli. The panchayat had opposed their marriage in 2007 because they belonged to the same ” gotra” or clan and therefore the match was considered incestuous and non-permissible.

But rules vary depending on geography and community. In Uttar Pradesh, there have been many cases where khap panchayats have socially boycotted families whose children married into different communities. In 2015, two Dalit women from Baghpat approached the Supreme Court alleging that the khap panchayat had ordered that they be raped and paraded naked in their villages because their brother reportedly eloped with a woman from a higher Jat caste.

In states such as Odisha, Jharkhand and Assam, social boycott assumes another terrible shape in the form of witch-hunting. “Villagers label a woman a witch, blame her for natural calamities, even health hazards, and throw her out of the village or stone her to death. Her family members, especially her children, are targeted too,” says Bhubaneswar-based advocate Sashiprava Bindhani, who co-drafted the Odisha Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act, passed in 2013.

Assam, which has witnessed more than 400 cases of witch-hunting in the last five years, enacted the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act in 2015. Both Acts provide for more effective measures to prevent and protect persons from witch-hunts, but witness protection is something both states are still grappling with.

The Maharashtra Act, too, has no provision for witness protection. Neither does it deal with issues related to compensation and rehabilitation of victims. Activists feel even the quantum of punishment is not enough of a deterrent. “We had proposed a jail term of up to seven years and a minimum fine of Rs 5 lakh. On many occasions, caste panchayats impose a fine of Rs 2-3 lakh on victims of social boycott,” says Nashik-based Krishna Chandgude, state secretary of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. In fact, it was the Samiti that spearheaded the campaign to declare social boycott a crime.

There is not much awareness about the law among police officials either, says Krishna. When Umesh and others wanted to lodge a complaint, allegedly, there were efforts by police to discourage them from filing it. Instead, police asked them to prove that they had been ostracised.

In Chhattisgarh, activists have been trying shake things up, strong opposition notwithstanding. Yuvraj Sinha, president of the Raipur chapter of Jaiswal Samaj, an OBC community, says, “A law to deal with social boycott will end the age-old traditions. Nobody will follow the rules, nobody will marry within the community or follow the customs of the community related to births and deaths. The younger generation will lose respect for the elders of the community if criminal cases are filed so easily.”

The argument over what is tradition and what’s effete about it goes on.

HIV positive couples cannot formally adopt children but many seem to have got around the problem. The children are bringing joy to their lives.

Tekchand and Shruti Mule smile with quiet pride when they see their 10-month-old baby crawl. Little Akanksha pulls them towards her and makes for the garden. The Mules dutifully follow her baby steps.

“She has showered us with happiness. Life could not have been better than this,” say Tekchand Mule.

Three years ago, the Mules wanted to kill themselves. When they discovered that they were HIV positive, the Mules — residents of Mauda, 35 kilometres from Nagpur — thought death was better than the stigma that people attached to the virus. “Suicide seemed to be the only option,” says Shruti.

Then one day Akanksha, then barely a month old, entered their lives. Her biological mother wanted to abandon the child because the family was too poor to feed another mouth. “Akanksha needed a home and we wanted a child,” says Tekchand. “Now we are complete — like any other family,” he says.

The Mules are among 7,000 HIV positive couples in Maharashtra. Their tales are like those that HIV positive people across the country relate — of misery, stigma and discrimination. But there is a difference. The presence of a child has given a new meaning to their lives.

Formal adoption is not an option for them, for Supreme Court guidelines make it mandatory for adoptive parents to be “physically and mentally fit”. So couples with HIV/AIDS are bringing up relatives’ and others’ children who need a home. The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, does not derecognise such an arrangement, say lawyers.

Ranjeet and Usha Patil have such an understanding with Rani’s biological mother. “She was a single woman who wanted to abort when she became pregnant. We wanted a child. So we approached her and persuaded her to have her baby, who has been living with us since she was two days old,” says Usha, as she cuddles Rani, now 4.

Some of the adopted children are HIV positive. When Dheeraj and Prajakta Nimbhorkar, an HIV positive couple from Wardha, added little Ritesh to their family, they knew he had the virus, like his late biological parents. But the Nimbhorkars, who have a 12-year old daughter, were keen to give Ritesh a home. “He was being neglected by his uncles. He had no food, clothing or medicines. It was terrible to see him in such pain,” says Dheeraj.

But though the young ones have brought joy to their lives, many complain that stigma continues to stalk HIV positive people — and their children. The Patils have kept their HIV status under wraps because they fear Rani will be discriminated against once it becomes public. “We don’t want our child to suffer. So we haven’t even informed Rani’s school about our illness,” says Usha.

Some, like Ashok and Shubhangi Dhale of Akola, have decided to fight discrimination. When they got to know that the neighbourhood children were not playing with their five-year-old adopted son Shiv because the Dhales were HIV positive, Ashok had a meeting with the neighbours to explain that HIV/AIDS was not contagious. “Since then, their approach towards my child has changed,” says Ashok, who is associated with a non governmental organisation, Network of People Living with HIV.

But it’s not just people at large who are insensitive. The government, many maintain, does little to help them live normally. Nitin Jevdekar of Loni, who has adopted two HIV positive children, says the two need to pay frequent visits to government hospitals in Pune for their antiretroviral therapy (ART) medicines. “The hospitals do not have pediatricians in the ART centre for children,” he says. “There are no separate arrangements for children, and it is torturous for them to stand in long queues and wait for their turn.”

The Maharashtra State AIDS Control Society (Mahasacs), however, promises to help families that have to travel several miles to reach a centre which provides them with second line ART treatment, a more sophisticated round of medicines for those for whom the first round has not been effective. “We are planning to train counsellors at ART centres in Nagpur to administer the second line treatment soon,” says Dr Ramesh Deokar, project director, Mahasacs.

People with HIV say that society continues to treat them harshly 25 years after the first HIV positive case was detected in India. That is one reason people seek to adopt children who, they point out, are often their only source of hope. “I want my child to be a lawyer when he grows up so that he can fight for the rights of all HIV positive people,” says Kamayani Shirke, who has been raising a HIV positive boy for the past eight years. Chanchal, 12, is also keen to fulfil his mother’s dreams. “I want to grow up fast. I wish I can take all the pain away from my mother’s life,” says the Class VII student.

The couples, clearly, have pinned their hopes on their children. But a few harbour some misgivings as well. The Mules often wonder how Akanksha will react when she gets to know about their HIV status. “I hope she isn’t ashamed of us and doesn’t consider herself unfortunate,” says Shruti.

The Patils, on the other hand, want to ensure that Rani doesn’t commit the same mistakes that they did. Ranjit, who caught the virus through unsafe sex, says he wants to educate Rani about the dangers of unprotected sex. “We will let her know how unsafe sex can lead to such a deadly infection. We will not conceal any facts about the disease from her. She should learn from our mistakes,” he says.

But these are problems that the couples are happy to resolve. Everything is secondary now that they have their child, they stress.

Lalit and Sanjana Bhonsle are not so fortunate. Despite trying their best, the HIV positive Bhonsles are still childless. “We are yet to come across anyone who would willingly give away their child to us,” says Lalit. He laments that he cannot officially adopt a child either.

Lawyers too argue that the government should make an exception for couples that may be HIV positive but lead healthy lives. “There should be a provision for medical assessment to ensure that the adoption pleas of HIV positive couples not on ART can be considered,” says Delhi-based senior advocate Jagdeep Kishore.

And while that may take a while, medical experts say that a HIV positive woman’s child doesn’t necessarily have to carry the virus. “If a HIV positive mother is given a single dose of Nevirapine within 72 hours after the baby is delivered and she doesn’t breast feed, the chances of mother-to-child transmission are reduced to nil. All government hospitals should be able to administer this medicine,” says Dr Anita Basavraj, associate professor, Sassoons Hospital.

This is good news for people like the Bhonsles. A child, after all, will bring to their lives what has been denied to them all these years — a bit of love and hope.

(Some names have been changed on request. Photographs were published after taking due permission from each of them)