A new form of untouchability

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A new form of untouchability

  • Recently, a video showing villagers from 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 allegedly orchestrated by a Hindutva outfit.
  • India lacks a robust politico-legal framework to address the open calls to economically boycott Muslims.


  • Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) distributing pamphlets calling for the economic boycott of those it labels “anti-national, anti-Hindu, love jihadists”, all convenient epithets to convey a communal message.
  • It can be characterized 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.

Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)

  • Vishva Hindu Parishad is an Indian right-wing Hindu organization based on Hindu nationalism.
  • It was founded in 1964 by M. S. Golwalkar and S. S. Apte in collaboration with Swami Chinmayananda.
  • Its objective is to organize, consolidate the Hindu society and to serve and protect the Hindu Dharma.

A prevalent Ideology & Untouchability

  • 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 ritual hierarchy.
  • Untouchability was a mechanism through which power was exercised over the Dalits and the hierarchy reinforced.
  • One of the most common forms of untouchability was the imposition of social and economic boycott of Dalits if they dared to transgress social norms or exercise their rights.
  • Collective discrimination, marginalisation and disempowerment justified as the right of the individual to choose freely in a marketplace.
  • Boycott is 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.
  • There is a paramount need 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.
  • Untouchability was abolished, its definition remained vague.
  • The scope of untouchability should be restricted to practices related to religion and caste, lest it be left open to unwarranted tinkering.
  • The limits of untouchability under Article 17 have been contested, Conservatives restrict it to caste-based discrimination but progressives argue that it includes other forms of untouchability as well.
  • The acts which are motivated by the ideology of purity and pollution are considered within the ambit of untouchability. These include social and economic boycotts.

Scope of Laws and Regulations

  • In India, mere provision of rights has proved to be insufficient to prevent marginalization owing to the practice of untouchability
  • The legislature and the judiciary have had to make and interpret special laws to that effect.
  • 2 laws explicitly make social and economic boycotts punishable:
  1. The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989,
  2. Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016.
  • The scope of both is restricted to criminalising caste-based discrimination and boycotts.

An ineffective approach

  • The tethering of anti-boycott or untouchability laws to the tenets of purity and pollution and restricting their scope to caste-centric boycotts makes them ineffective to counter the calls of 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 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 to a unified, ethnic whole, where the figure of the Dalit is replaced by the Muslim.
  • These grave new developments need to be taken into cognisance and an urgent politico-legal response to such public calls for Muslim economic boycott is required.
  • It militates 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.