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Caste Panchayats and Constitutional Rights

69 years ago, the Constitution of India was adopted, granting us rights and freedoms, and becoming the basis for a life of dignity. But did the law translate to social justice?

Last week, a group of young people in Pune opposed a virginity test ritual sanctioned by the local Kanjarbhat community panchayat. In retaliation, they were beaten up by a group of 40 for daring to raise their voice against what they considered a regressive tradition. Community panchayats or caste panchayats often pride themselves as the guardians of tradition and customs.

They wield immense power in most parts of the country today, meting out harsh punishments to anyone whose behaviour and actions they consider to be in contradiction with community norms. Killings in the name of ‘honour’, public thrashings and rape threats, controlling women’s mobility and choices; in effect, taking away the basic freedoms that the Constitution entitles us to.

In Gujarat’s Surendranagar district, one such caste panchayat headed by men from the Vankar (weaver) community is condemning people to a life of social boycott and extorting money from them and from anyone who does not boycott them. Hina and Nikesh, who married each other against their parents’ wishes, are fighting against this extra-constitutional group, often running from pillar to post only to repeat the story each time.

The Supreme Court, on 16 January 2018, said that no Khap panchayat or caste panchayat can take action against two adults choosing to marry outside their caste or clan (gotra). Any attacks in the name of honour are completely illegal, the court ruled. But Hina and Nikesh continue to face the threat of boycott and violence, and even the police has failed to help them.

“They want money from us, it’s not like we don’t have the money to give them, but we won’t,” says Nikesh, who, along with Hina, wants to live a life free from fear of persecution. “We have not violated any law,” he insists.

The Centre, in the past, has asked the Supreme Court to come up with a mechanism to prevent such attacks sanctioned by caste panchayats because even the police is not able to help the victims in many cases.

In states like Tamil Nadu, the police has formed special cells to protect couples who marry against the wishes of their families and communities. In 2017, Maharashtra became the first state to enact a law against social boycott by caste panchayats.

Meanwhile, the caste panchayat in Surendranagar continues to terrorise people and extort money with impunity, while Hina and Nikesh fight for their constitutional liberties, undeterred.

Video by Community Correspondent Bipin Solanki

Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV editorial team

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