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When social goes legal goes social

March 13, 2010

Speaking at a seminar recently organized by the law department of Guru Nanak Dev University, a judge from Punjab and Haryana high court bench called for social boycott of those engaging in female feticide or infanticide, i.e., kudimaari. The widespread prevalence of female feticide in Punjab (among other states in India)  — as evident from its disturbingly low female-to-male ratio  — got me pondering over the use of social boycott as a measure to contain this practice in the community.

“Social boycott is the shunning of a person — a society’s collective refusal to engage in the normal social and commercial relations that make life palatable and, in some cases, possible for an individual. Its goal: to make that individual so uncomfortable that he decides to voluntarily leave the society. The strategy never involves the confiscation of property or the initiation of force. It has been used effectively by a wide variety of societies, most notably the Amish.”  (Wendy McElroy)

Social boycott and excommunication are not new to the Sikh community. Even during the guruship period, some individuals had been excommunicated for blasphemy, religious misconduct, or acting against the interests of the community. For example, during his visit to Emperor Aurangzeb’s court, Ram Rai, son of 7th Guru, Guru Har Rai, misquoted statements from the Sikh scriptures to appease the Emperor. When Guru Har Rai learnt of this incident, he forbade Ram Rai to return home and asked Sikhs to not associate with him.

The decision to excommunicate is almost always announced to the community through Hukumnamas – edicts, writs or diktats. They were thus used first by the Gurus, later by Sarbat Khalsa and now by Akal Takht – the highest temporal body of the Sikhs – to announce significant decisions impacting the Sikh community. The first Hukumnama is known to have been issued by the sixth master, Guru Hargobind Sahib, asking Sikhs to arm themselves.  Post-guruship period, Akal Takht has issued Hukumnamas to excommunicate individuals and cults for blasphemy or acting against the interests and principles of the Sikh society. An example is the most recent Hukumnama excommunicating Prof. Darshan Singh for his controversial views on Dasam Granth. Some others who were summoned and punished by the Akal Takht include late President of India, Zail Singh; ex-home minister, Buta Singh; and academician Pashaura Singh to name a few. Celebrities too have not escaped the critical eye and cricketer Harbhajan Singh (for his Ravana act on TV) and model Mandira Bedi (for the religious tatoo on her back) have received summons from Akal Takht to apologize and desist from representing the religious insignia and community in bad light. Also, it is not just Akal Takht but other takhts too, for example, takth Sri Hazoor Sahib and Patna Sahib, that have issued Hukumnamas.

Hukumnamas have also been used to discourage the practice of killing a girl-child. The tenth master, Guru Gobind Singh, had in a hukamnama to his Sikhs exhorted them to not associate themselves with kudimaars, i.e., those who killed their daughters. In Punjab, three hundred years since that Hukumnama, the desire to have sons coupled with the availability of technology to determine the sex of foetus has morphed the practice of female infanticide to female feticide. Alarmed by the low female-to-male ratio in Punjab, Akal Takht issued a hukumnama in 2001 forbidding pre-natal sex determination and threatening a social boycott of those engaging in female feticide or infanticide.

However, to the best of my knowledge, despite the leadership’s strong stance against female feticide and issuance of Hukumnamas to discourage the populace from the criminal practice, I have yet to come across an incident where an individual from the Sikh community has been excommunicated or socially boycotted on the grounds of kudimaari. Doctors from the community practice sex-selective abortions, clinics owned by community members conduct pre-natal sex determination tests, and certain villages in Punjab have attracted notoriety for their alarming low female-to-male ratios that could not have been reached without sex-selective abortions. Occasions such as these in the community that demand an action from the community are not lacking; however, clearly either the community’s lack of will or lack of knowledge to act (or react) on these occasions might be in play. Both lack of will and lack of knowledge can be partly attributed to a lack of precedent on this issue. Is it, then, time for some precedents to be established on this front?

Because social boycott or excommunication is a punitive measure, mechanism of some kind would need to be in place to ensure that the accused receive a fair trial before they are deemed guilty and socially boycotted. What would this mechanism look like? That is, how would the decision to socially boycott the ‘kudimaars’ be reached? Who would be the primary actors in this decision-making? These are important questions because this mechanism of social justice can have grave consequences if wrongly carried out, such as the Talibanistic way or, closer home, the Khap panchayat way. When people take upon themselves to deliver justice, proper procedures are rarely followed, the damage done can be irreparable, and there is often a lack of accountability. Reassuringly, Akal Takht follows a set of protocol before announcing its decision; the process is evolving and, though contentious, is becoming more transparent, democratic, and consistent over time. Understandably, Akal Takht can’t be expected to make such individual case-by-case decisions, but it can surely establish a procedure that can be followed at the local sangat level.

CONCLUSION

Female feticide is a social evil, a consequence of long-held prejudices against women. To stop it will require changing the existing social structures to enable gender equality in every way and also educating people to change their attitudes and mindsets regarding gender roles. However, whether we like it or not, these positive steps will also need to be complemented by punitive measures, which can have both forms, legal and social. Societies with weaker judiciary systems and legal institutions will seek alternative punitive measures. Social boycott offers one such alternative, which when executed diligently and within the legal realms has proved to be effective. In a community whose spiritual leaders and authorities have addressed the crime (female infanticide/feticide) and advocated a measure  (social boycott) to stop it, it is a wonder why the community, while continuing to remain afflicted by kudimaari, has been hesitant to use the advocated approach of social boycott. Perhaps it is time for think-tanks in the community to develop a process whereby justice can be delivered the social way, while also ensuring that what is being delivered as justice is justice indeed.

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