On 19 May the Supreme Court of India heard final arguments in Shayara Bano v Union of India in which one of the issues the court had to decide upon was the constitutional validity of instantaneous Triple Talaq. During these hearings the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) took the position that Triple Talaq was constitutional valid and enjoyed protection under the Indian Constitution. A week after the arguments had concluded, the AIMPLB made a U–turn and filed an affidavit with the Court stating that it would call for the social boycott of Muslim men who use Triple Talaq to divorce their wives. This strategic changing of positions by the AIMPLB on an issue that is being considered by a court is not new. And neither is the use of social boycott by communities to legitimize and reinforce their social authority.
In 1928 the Starte Committee Report, commissioned by the government of Bombay to study the status of the Depressed Classes, called out the practice of social boycott –
‘ ..We do not know of any weapon more effective, than this social boycott which could have been invented fur the suppression of the Depressed Classes. The method of open violence pales away before it, for it has the most far reaching and deadening effects. It is the more dangerous because it passes as a lawful method consistent with the theory of freedom of contract…’
Ambedkar, too, was well aware of the effectiveness and the danger posed by the device of social boycott. In her book ‘The Caste Question’, Anupama Roy states that -
‘Ambedkar defamiliarized this process [ social boycott] to reveal its intrinsic violence and to argue that if caste boundaries were maintained through illegitimate violence, then Dalits required a radical remedy in the form of legal redress’ (p. 165)
In 1946, about twenty years after the Starte Report, Ambedkar provided this legal redress in his submission to the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights of Constituent Assembly where he quoted the report in his explanatory notes. The submission, States and Minorities, contains a clause (Clause 3 under Article II Section III) – Protection against Social Boycott –.under which Ambedkar defined ‘Boycott’, declared it as a cognizable offence and directed the Union legislature to make laws prescribing punishment. The text of the clause is largely borrowed from the Burma Anti-Boycott Act, 1922.
Ambedkar’s proposed provisions on social boycott did not find its way into the Constitution of India, 1950. There was no debate in the Constituent Assembly on the standalone category of social boycott. But the Assembly did debate the problem of social discrimination extensively, especially in the context of Article 15.
The AIMPLB’s intention of organising a social boycott would be a crime in the state of Maharasatra. In 2016, the Maharastra State Assembly enacted the Maharsatra Prohibition of Persons from Social boycott Bill 2015 that criminalises the practice of social boycott. The Act is not restricted to tackling only caste based social boycotts among Hindus. Ambedkar recognised that social boycott was a practice that cut across all religions and could be used by different groups in different contexts – “The weapon of boycott is now-a-days used against other communities besides the Scheduled Castes. It is therefore in the interests of all minor communities to have this protection [against social boycott]’.