Mumbai Local

Bill against excommunication a welcome move

Susan Abraham  

On April 13, 2016, on the eve of Dr B R Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, the Maharashtra legislature unanimously passed the Prohibition of Social Boycott Bill to end the menace of extra-judicial institutions such as caste and community panchayats. The Bill was approved by the State Cabinet on March 1 and will be tabled in the Assembly during the monsoon session.

The Bill has followed the directions of the Bombay High Court to the State government in August 2013 to frame a law to curb the menace of social boycott and excommunication. Two cases had come up before the High Court: one a PIL filed by four members of the ‘Kunbi’ community from Harihareshwar, Raigad district, who were facing social boycott for contesting the local body elections without the consent of their jat panchayat and the other by a member of the ‘Koli’ community from the same district that the local caste panchayat had ostracised him due to which he was not allowed to attend weddings and funerals of his relatives, and was even disallowed from being supplied subsidised diesel for his fishing boat.

On August 19, 2013, a Division Bench of the High Court headed by Justice SC Dharmadhikari had said: “Victims of excommunication must have the protection of law. It is dangerous in a democratic setup to run such parallel systems, which control society illegally,” and exhorted the State government to take initiatives to end the scourge.

The High Court said, “As per Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution, everyone should be given the Right to Equality; some people, in the name of caste panchayats, shouldn’t violate the rights of others.”

But it is not the first time that such a legislation has been passed in the State. In 1949, in what was then Bombay Province (that included the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat), the State government had passed the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act, 1949, with the objective to protect the civil, social, and religious rights of those excommunicated by their own communities. The legislation was pushed by the reformers within the Dawoodi Bohra community who sought to bring an end to the practice of ‘excommunication’, which was rampant in their community.

The community’s head priest or Syedna challenged the law on the ground that the Act infringed upon his constitutional freedom of religion by curtailing his right as the religious head to discipline the community by casting out ‘errant’ members. The High Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Act. However, in 1962, a five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice BP Sinha in Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin vs The State of Bombay, struck down the Act finding that its provisions violated Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution.

The writer is a lawyer at Bombay High Court

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 2:21:24 AM |

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