Is it time for Punjab to enact a new law on social boycott?
Extrapolating the sin: "Roti-beti di saanjh na rakhi jaave"?
- Kamjaat Singh

What is the takeaway for Punjab, in general, and the Sikh community, in particular, from Pranab Mukherjee's last day in the Rashtrapati Niwas? Among the pieces of legislation Mukherjee inked in that house on the Raisina Hill was Maharashtra’s Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016.
This is one piece of legislation that should force us in Punjab to have a re-look at the concept and construct of religion-backed social boycotts of entire sects, communities and believers.
One can understand the bitterness of the late 70s when the Akal Takht passed an edict, asking the Sikh community to socially boycott the Nirankari sect. Decades later, the rage that the devout felt at the alleged blasphemy committed by the Sirsa-based self-styled holy man can also be understood by anyone associated with any sect, community or religion.
Followers of Nurmehal-based Ashutosh remain socially boycotted, even as the man remains comfortably ensconced in a freezer.

What is not so easy to understand is the idea of a call for a boycott of an entire community, even of the progeny still to come into this world? 

If you were a Sikh living in Maharashtra, you would be on the wrong side of the legislation President Pranab Mukherjee just signed into law since it makes social boycott a crime. The Maharashtra law disallows social boycott of any individual or group by caste panchayats or groups of individuals, and covers all kinds of reasons, including rituals of worship. It provides for 7 years of jail and fine of Rs 5 lakh or both. Imagine now the fate of a Sikh family telling someone that they are bound by a religious edict to socially boycott all Nirankaris living in their cooperative housing society, and that they cannot send their children to the houses of their Nirankari classmates for sleepovers on account of their religious beliefs.
By the way, th​ese​ boycott ​h​ukamnamas are always ​adhered to by ordinary ​Sikhs while their political leaders ​c​ontinue freely mingle with the so-called Panth-dokhis​, also seen as vote banks.​

During ​the ​last elections​,​ more than 40 Akali​ Dal​ candidates ​who ​visited the banned deras to seek blessings ​were later declared Tankhaias by the ​S​ikh clergy​. It took some washing of utensils and a little bit ​of ​money ​to make the sin go away and with that, they were back in the business of politics as Adarsh Sikh leaders.

Social boycotts in Punjab have not been the monopoly of any one community in Punjab. Calls for boycott of Dalits are now staple news. Media in Punjab was shocked at Dalits' boycott in Talhan at the turn of the millinium, a flashpoint which threw up a leader called Vijay Sampla, now a Union Minister and Punjab BJP President. 

Since then, we seem to have learnt to live with the abominable as the norm. 

*In March this year, the panchayat Dakoha village in Gurdaspur banned the entry of two of the village families after their sons married girls of the same village. Worse, it asked the Jathedar of the Akal Takht to issue an order to all gurudwaras not to perform marriages of boys and girls of same village. Worst, the clergy never rejected the request. 
* Not too long back, landlords of village Maha Singh Wala in Sangrur had decided to socially boycott the village Dalits over wages for paddy sowing. Villages paying more were fined. Milkmen were forced to stop milk supplies to Dalits. 
*In May this year, 'Sarbat Khalsa Jathedars' ordered a social boycott of Sikh leaders allegedly guilty of seeking support from Dera Sirsa cult.

Social boycotts and segregation remain a part and parcel of Punjab's politics.  

Every Sikh is under an edict to socially boycott Dhirmalias and Ram Raiyas, but is it time to rethink the entire construct of such boycotts? Law is catching up with normative discrimination, and the Sikhs will do well to maintain their position of being among the most progressive and liberal people.

Behind the new Maharashtra law is the decades-long work of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS). This was the platform founded by rationalist and conscience-keeper Dr. Narendra Dabholkar. Many Punjabis had raised their voice when Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi were killed in murderous attacks.
Besides, there are other serious questions that the new generation of Sikhs, of Nirankaris, of followers of sundry other sects may well ask: How are the sins of a few extrapolated on to an entire community of people, and also on to the yet unborn?
While the Maharashtra law will be welcomed by many progressive sections in India, since it underscores that human dignity is supreme, those asking for social boycotts from the supreme temporal seats of religion should understand that any form of social boycott is now a crime. 

Earlier laws had escape routes because social boycott was not clearly defined. Now, the new law categorically codifies what will amount to a social boycott and will attract a jail term.

Besides, there are other serious questions that the new generation of Sikhs, of Nirankaris, of followers of sundry other sects may well ask: How are the sins of a few extrapolated on to an entire community of people, and also on to the yet unborn? 

How is a 13-year-old child X of a Nirankari couple to understand why the parents of his classfellow Y have omitted his parents' name from the guestlist for Y's b'day celebrations? Were not the parents of child Y following the edict for a social boycott and thus being purely religious? Or were they being inhuman to child X, surely not a very religious thing to do on the b'day of one's child!

The piece of legislation Pranab Mukherjee signed on his last day needs to send some of us back to the religious drawing board on which we drew divisive lines, of course understandably at that time because such was the rage and revulsion at the acts of a few.

It is no one's case that the new Maharashtra law against social boycotts will turn out to be a panacea. The Devendra Fadnavis government's record in creating an egalitarian society is just as shameful as that of the rest, and the proof of the pudding will be in the implementation of the Act. 

Even without the clergy-sanctioned social boycotts, acts of discrimination abound in Punjab. Improved economic standing of Doaba's Dalits, who were once pushed into caste-enforced occupations such as scavenging and tanning, often does not translate into improved social status. Their counterparts in south Punjab are even less fortunate, and Dalit residential areas are marked by illiteracy, unemployment and landlessness. In such a scenario, routine calls of social boycott enforce a sense of caste-based superiority. 
This is one piece of legislation that should force us in Punjab to have a re-look at the concept and construct of religion-backed social boycotts of entire sects, communities and believers.
In Punjab, no major party is working on any radical agenda to ameliorate the lot of Dalits. Worse, the community remains largely leaderless. The Bahujan Samaj Party is almost non-existent, its leaders unknown to even most journalists. 

Still, some hope remains. In scores of villages, distribution of one-third of the shamlat (common) land to the landless lower castes is a sensitive issue. Similarly, the 5-marla plot promise remains an interface for agitation and clash. Leaders of an egalitarian religion like Sikhism should have joined this movement with enthusiasm. Instead, they are conspicuous by absence, often even seen as opponents. 

Is it time for Punjab to have an Act on the lines of Maharashtra? Or must we plot discrimination on religious drawing boards and commit clergy-sanctioned sins by calling these religious edicts? The unborn will want an answer someday, and the edict may fall short to cover our shame.
(Kamjaat Singh is an academic activist who also dabbles in journalism and writes under a pseudonym, with interests covering media, communications, academics, law, cinema and life. Kamjaat Singh, who will be regularly writing for Punjab Today, can be reached at kamjaatsingh@gmail.com.)


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