Ostracism by caste panchayat forced Santosh Jadhav to relinquish post a year early in 2008

Santosh Jadhav was the Sarpanch of Maharashtra’s Harihareshwar town. A man once considered the head of the village. Ironically, as soon as he won the post in 2004, his entire community stopped speaking to him.

Mr. Santosh belongs to the OBC Kunbi community. His decision to run for the Sarpanch’s post against the will of the caste panchayat, triggered a vicious social boycott. One that still continues, nine years on.

“On the day I won the post of Sarpanch, the caste panchayat tried to garland me with slippers,” says the 38- year-old. Initially, he stuck to his guns. Under his leadership, the village went on to win the President’s Nirmal Gram award and three State awards. But the ostracism forced him to relinquish his term a year early in 2008.

Yet till today, none of the 80 Kunbi families in the village speak to the Jadhavs. They don’t allow their children to play with Mr. Santosh’s son and daughter. Nor do they do business with them. A shop which the family used to run, shut down a year after the boycott was announced. At that time, he was still the village Sarpanch.

Mr. Santosh says his refusal to fall in line with the caste panchayat’s diktats over the years must have led to this. He had rebelled against their earlier calls to ostracise other families. He sold goods from his shop to them and allowed their children to watch TV in his house.

“The caste panchayat tried to stop me from interacting with boycotted families but I refused. So finally, they decided to target me. They took their revenge during the gram panchayat elections,” he said. His growing social network in the village, must have also made them insecure, he feels.

Mr. Santosh and his brother are freelance journalists and social workers. They organised regular medical and legal aid camps. They also ran a high-profile campaign to save Olive Ridleyturtles which nest at the Harihareshwar beach.

The family was initially taken aback by how completely the community fell in line with the caste panchayat’s orders. They were not allowed at any social event including pujas, marriages and festivals.

Not a single relative attended Mr. Santosh’s father’s funeral two years ago. “Usually, death absolves everything but not in our case,” says his mother Sunanda (60). Those who boycotted the funeral included her own sister, with whom she shares a compound wall. A sister, who has not spoken to her for nine years. “They are scared. They don’t want to be thrown out of the caste like us,” explains Sunanda.The ostracism hits them worst when Mr. Santosh’s children are targeted. When Manish (11) and Pooja (9) try to play with other children in the area, they are told to leave. They have stopped going outside. What is their fault?” he asks.

However, the caste panchayat has denied any call to boycott the Jadhavs. “He is making false allegations for political benefits,” claims Prasad Padave, a member of the caste panchayat.

Initially the police did not act on the complaint filed by the family. It was only after the State Human Rights Commission intervened that they filed a charge sheet against 19 members of the caste panchayat. But they were discharged by a local court which said the charges were not proved.

The family has now moved the Bombay High Court. “The police did not apply the right charges so the case needs reconsideration,” says the Jadhav’s lawyer Asim Sarode. The State told the court that it had issued a circular to all police stations to lodge complaints against caste panchayats.

Despite Maharashtra’s history of social reform, caste panchayats remain a fixture. “Some families have been suffering the boycott for over 30 years,” says Krushna Chandgude, a social activist from Nashik

Meanwhile Mr. Santosh and his family are determined to fight on. “We had witnessed such cases in the past but never thought we would be victims too. Now I don’t want anyone else to suffer,” says Sunanda.