A 2007 report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that Dalits are frequently the victims of discriminatory treatment in the administration of justice. Prosecutors and judges fail to vigorously and faithfully pursue complaints brought by Dalits, which is evidenced by the high rate of acquittals in such cases.The Supreme Court’s decision stating rampant misuse of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act as an instrument to blackmail has hurt the feelings of the Dalit community. This sparked the protests on Monday. The central government on Monday filed a review petition in the apex court.
“The government, clearly, had failed to understand how deeply the Dalit communities have invested in the Atrocities Act, which they see as a powerful instrument to resist and fight caste-centered harassment and oppression”. “The shift in the balance of political power is now manifest in the anti-Dalit violence, reported at alarming frequency from villages and small-towns that target both private and communal events involving the community like marriages, festivals and commemorations”. The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was enacted by the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress government as to further the concept abolition of untouchability. It was brought into force in 1990 in order to check crimes against people belonging to the SC/ST community by people belonging to other communities. It essentially seeks to deter people from committing crimes against people belonging to SC’s and ST’s and provide victims with special rights and privileges. There are fast-track courts that have been set up for complaints made by anyone from the SC and ST community. An amendment to the law came into effect from January 2016 which widened the range of offences that were recognized the law. According to a 2016 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, it showed that a major portion of violence and crimes against dalits were against women. A similar 2015 report showed more than 45,000 crimes against scheduled castes. The Supreme Court decision essentially diluted the provisions under the Act which stated the immediate arrest of the accused. Sukhadeo Thorat, Professor Emeritus, JNU, in a column for the Hindustan Times states that the efforts by Dalits have been hindered and restricted by the higher castes through social and economic boycott – “Dalits are not hurt as much by the decision, as by the allegation of misuse. Dr BR Ambedkar, back in 1947, summarily rejected the theory that the law could be misused . He argued that in terms of economic strength, Dalits depend for their livelihood on the land-owning high castes that are demographically in majority”. The law as such lists out the various acts that constitute atrocities - denial of access to places, wrongful occupation of land, dispossession from land, malicious prosecution and causing political and economic disability. As Prof. Thorat points out in the column, the conviction rates are low and most of the cases end in acquittals. “Between 2010 and 2016, of the cases in which trial was completed, a big majority ended in acquittals. In 2016, only 1.4% of all crimes against scheduled castes that came up for trial ended in convictions; for scheduled tribes, the percentage was 0.8%”. In a 2013 amendment to the Act, it stated that adequate justice was still difficult for a majority of victims and the witnesses due to hurdles at various stages and there are long delays in procedures and trials. Some changes were made and brought into an amendment in 2016, but not enough to curb crimes against SC’s and ST’s. Politically, the government may not be doing enough to protect the Dalit community. Sudha Pai, former professor, JNU, in a column for The Wire, states that the recent protests signal a shift from hope to disappoint with the BJP and that the party is losing the support of Dalits – “With rising political consciousness and aspirations, younger generations of Dalits today are upset, they feel that the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi used their support to win the 2014 national elections but have not fulfilled the promises it made”. There have been incidents of violence against Dailts; most notably in July 2016, where gaurakshaks flogged four Dalits for killing a cow in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district. Another incident was in Saharanpur incident in 2016 when Dalits were attacked by middle and upper caste villagers. The incident in Gujarat put the spotlight on Jignesh Mevani, who is a member of the Gujarat legislative assembly. “The large and violent movement by Dalits across all the states of the Hindi heartland ruled by the BJP today, point to disillusionment, unhappiness and rising anger against the party. It is a heterogeneous coalition in which the upper castes are still numerically dominant and the Dalits and backwards are jostling for space and power”.
More columns by Varun Sukumar