Context: Recently, a video, purportedly showing villagers from the Surguja district of Chhattisgarh taking an oath to implement an economic boycott of Muslims, went viral on social media. This was not a spontaneous reaction of the villagers to a brawl in the village but was allegedly orchestrated by a Hindutva outfit. The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) is known to distribute pamphlets calling for the economic boycott of those it labels “anti-national, anti-Hindu, love jihadists” — all convenient epithets to convey a communal message.
Why it is a new form of Untouchability?
- These acts are not merely ‘expressions of hate’; they can be characterised as the emergence of a new form of untouchability guided by the political imperatives of Hindutva rather than the religious dictates of Hinduism.
- A progressive re-articulation of the concept of untouchability or a re-reading of the anti-discrimination legislation is required to end this abomination.
- The hierarchical caste-based Hindu social order was governed by the ideology of purity and pollution. The primary function of the ideology was to maintain the ritual hierarchy.
- Untouchability was a mechanism through which power was exercised over the Dalits and the hierarchy was reinforced.
- One of the most common forms of untouchability was the imposition of social and economic boycotts on Dalits if they dared to transgress social norms or exercise their rights.
- In Ambedkar’s opinion, the method of boycotting was more effective than even open violence.
- Collective discrimination, marginalisation and disempowerment were justified as the right of the individual to choose freely in a marketplace.
- He argued that the boycott was effective for two reasons – one, the Dalits constituted a minority within the village; and two, they were economically weaker and hence, dependent on the ‘upper’ castes. Therefore, it was of paramount importance to outlaw this ‘tyranny of the majority’ for their uplift.
Limits of anti-boycott laws
- During the freedom struggle, the struggle to eradicate untouchability gained momentum. This struggle found its highest expression in the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution under Articles 14, 15 and 17. However, although untouchability was abolished, its definition remained vague.
- Even during the Constituent Assembly debates, it was argued that the scope of untouchability should be restricted to practices related to religion and caste, lest it be left open to unwarranted tinkering; however, the Assembly voted against such a circumscribed definition.
- Therefore, the limits of untouchability under Article 17 have been contested.
- While the conservatives restrict it to caste-based discrimination, the progressives argue that it includes other forms of untouchability as well.
- However, there is a consensus that only those acts which are motivated by the ideology of purity and pollution are considered within the ambit of untouchability. These include social and economic boycotts.
- In India, mere provision of rights has proved to be insufficient to prevent marginalisation owing to the practice of untouchability. Hence, the legislature and the judiciary have had to make and interpret special laws to that effect.
- Two laws that explicitly make social and economic boycotts punishable are The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and the Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016.
- However, the scope of both is restricted to criminalising caste-based discrimination and boycotts.
- The tethering of anti-boycott or untouchability laws to the tenets of purity and pollution and restricting their scope to caste-centric boycotts make them ineffective in countering the calls for the economic boycott of Muslims.
- Hindutva is using pre-constitutional methods to disempower a community.
- It is not driven by the motive of maintaining ritual hierarchy but by the political imperatives of exclusion. Its ultimate objective is to ethnicise the Hindu identity. Such public calls for boycotts are a means of constructing such an identity.
- The act of collectively resolving to boycott Muslims reinforces their ‘othering’ and re-emphasises the VHP’s idea of ‘Hinduness’; reconstituting Hinduism, based on caste hierarchy, into a unified, ethnic whole, where the figure of the Dalit is replaced by the Muslim as the significant ‘other’.
- These grave new developments need to be taken into cognisance and an urgent politico-legal response to such public calls for a Muslim economic boycott is required as they militate against the principle of fraternity enshrined in the Constitution.
- This can be done by a progressive redefinition of untouchability or by expanding the scope of the anti-boycott laws to include discrimination against religious communities.
- Other than these legal measures there is an urgent need to ensure socio-economic upliftment of the Muslim community.
- Civil society should come forward to raise voices against such boycott calls.