Still longing for a taste of freedom

While 15th August signals the anniversary of the end of the British Raj, what day will signify the end of caste oppression that continues to grind Dalits in India? In rural areas, official apathy adds to the humiliation. Sruthisagar Yamunan reports

Published: 16th August 2012 09:45 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th August 2012 09:45 AM   |  A+A-

Sixty-five years after India attained Independence, a section of its society is yet to taste real freedom – from caste oppression.

The phenomenon is particularly acute in rural areas, as National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) chairman K G Balakrishnan recently pointed out at an open hearing of the commission on atrocities against Dalits. “The real problem lies in the villages,” he said.

Presentations made at the event substantiated his point. From Cuddalore to Kanyakumari, petitions poured in for the panel’s consideration, indicating that even 70 years after the social revolution of Periyar swept the Tamil heartland, caste discrimination continues unabated.

Rights activists say the major reason for heightening of tension in villages is growing awareness among Dalit youth. With the benefits of reservations, educated Dalits are now asserting their rights and want equality of treatment. While approaching such forums would have been unthinkable in earlier decades for fear of backlash, the new awareness has now ensured Dalits do not hold back.

What was striking in the petitions that came forth was cases of apathy, and in some cases collusion, by persons holding important offices at the ground level. Not only were provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities Act (PoA) given a pass, attempts to dilute offenses to remove application PoA were also witnessed.

No surprise then when complainants vented their ire at the officers during the hearing, arguing the “biased attitude” of a few officers which posed hurdles in the implementation of the State’s welfare schemes.

Activists who represented the victims, were of the view that official apathy had a lot to do with accentuating caste mechanics that prevail at the village level. They remarked that the intensity of the discrimination was milder in urban areas as officials are under the direct observation of the higher-ups.

VA Ramesh Nathan, director of Social Awareness Society for Youths, who represented 20 complainants from across the State during the hearing, said that in five years (between 2006 and 2011) his organisation had documented over 500 cases of atrocities on Dalits in a fact-finding survey.

“In most cases, we realised the police do not file the FIR immediately after a complaint is made. This gives the perpetrators time to seek preventive legal recourse,” he alleged. In one of the petitions he represented in the hearing, the FIR was filed only after the intervention of the Madras High Court but even then further action had been put on hold. This drew critical remarks from commission member Justice B C Patel, who heard the case and ordered a report.

A survey conducted in 2008 by Evidence, a Madurai-based NGO, revealed that some form of discrimination against Dalits prevailed in all 213 villages it sampled across 12 districts. Also, research by the organisation found low populations of Dalit in some areas made political consolidation difficult, which resulted in higher incidents of discrimination.

Of the 317 cases that came before the commission in the two days, at least 40 cases involved non-application of specific provisions of the PoA even when the offense is of a serious nature. “Only Section 3(1)(X) of the Act, which pertains to intentionally insulting a Dalit, is used whenever there is a complaint. We have to represent before the magistrate every time to add other provisions,” he pointed out.

Balakrishnan, at a press conference after the hearing, said the police are required to take action under specific provisions even on the basis of allegations made by the victim.

Issues pertaining to denying the right to enter places of worship and encrocahing on land dedicated to Dalits under various schemes were also brought up. In one case, idols inside two temples in a village in Krishnagiri were removed and taken to a new temple built by the dominant caste. This was apparently done as Dalits were allowed entry to older temples. Protracted legal battles followed.

Activists, including Chennai-based lawyer Lalitha, said that even in cases where the offence is blatant, officers fail to move swiftly. She pointed to one case where the District Collector was pulled up by the commission for failing to remedy the problems of Dalits for over 25 years!

In fact, this lack of response from officials was evident even during the hearing, when most cases went unrepresented from the administration’s side on the first day. This led to critical remarks from the members in numerous petitions along with warning of coercive action.

Petitioners who spoke to Express said there should be a more stringent mechanism where the NHRC monitors the administration at panchayat level. “Most of us do not even know whom to approach in these matters. It would help if they come down to the block level to conduct such hearings,” petitioners said.

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