A young Indian demonstrator holds a placard at a rally in New Delhi on July 18 in protest over a spate of assaults against Dalits in India. (Photo by Sajjad Hussain/AFP)
The western Indian state of Maharashtra has made social exclusion on the basis of caste, religion or race a criminal offence warranting a church official asking other states to emulate this example to help poor people who face rejection because of their faith.
The Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act 2016, got the approval of Indian president Pranab Mukherjee July 20, making it a full-fledged law. The Indian term "social boycott" includes preventing certain people because of caste, religion, culture from participating in religious programmes, festivals, or even from using common institutions like schools and hospitals.
The new law, a first such in the country, prohibits social boycotts in the name of caste, community, religion, rituals or customs. Violators, who impose or abet a social boycott, will be punished with years in jail and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees (about US$1,500), the law states.
"Dalits across India are bound by the village-level caste system without access to legal mechanisms to solve conflicts," said Father Z. Devasagayaraj, secretary of the Indian bishops' office of backward and indigenous classes. He said other states should follow suit and enact similar legislation.
Many parts of India are notorious for targeting people who question caste domination or those in inter-caste marriage, making social boycotts a grave concern, the priest said.
Indian media frequently report how in the villages poor Dalit and tribal people who become Christians face social boycotts engineered by Hindu groups who work to make India a Hindu nation.
Social boycotts, include cutting off access to common facilities in a village like water sources, transport and not employing those targeted. The tactic makes their lives miserable, often resulting in them being forced to quit their village.
Advocates of Dalit and minority rights such Father Devasagayaraj considers the legislation "historic" and that it has the potential to ensure social equality for the country's discriminated groups.
The Sanskrit term Dalit means "trampled upon" and denotes the former untouchable castes within Indian society that is made up of a four-tier caste system. They are often the target of disempowerment, oppression and persecution despite the Indian constitution abolishing caste discrimination and laws making "untouchability" a punishable offence.
Dalits have suffered centuries of social exclusion and discrimination from upper-caste people who considered themselves superior. The upper-castes thought that merely touching a Dalit person, always engaged in menial and despised jobs, would pollute them.