CHENNAI: How many cases of violence against women gets registered in Tamil Nadu do you think? It’s only about 5,600-5,700 a year. This, when the population of women in the state is 3,19,40,000; for every one lakh women, there are only five cases getting filed. It’s the same with Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Only about 1,300 cases, on average, get registered in the state every year.
This is a tiny percentage of the nearly three lakh cases that are filed under the Indian Penal Code. This law was brought about in 1989 to end violence and discrimination against Dalits. Because, with the amendments brought about in 2015, the Act not only covers ‘atrocities’ but also places a lot of focus on untouchability social boycott, manual scavenging, impeding the duties of a Dalit panchayat officer and more. But, where do we stand with implementation? Just during the corona period (lockdown and aftermath), nearly 25 panchayat presidents have faced discrimination and harassment and 23 of them are Dalit women. Tamil Nadu ranks first in the country in manual scavenging deaths; there have been 11 deaths in the past nine months.
There’s no dearth of honour killing incidents and murders. Yet, we are nowhere closed to prevent this. And the conviction rate under the Act isn’t great either. Secondly, you can easily say that there is no village without untouchability. The 200-400 villages identified as untouchability- prone is no measure. If you take any of the 40,000 villages in Tamil Nadu, you don’t just need two cemeteries or the double tumbler system; irandu kudi iruppu irunthale anga theendaamai irukkunu solren (if there are two different neighbourhoods itself, there is untouchability). Amid all this, there is a need to question if the government is working to bring about nondiscriminatory practices.
But, today, discrimination begins at the school. Even at the anganwadi which is supposed to serve toddlers. Take it further and there’s discrimination right at the primary health centre (PHC) where the pregnant woman seeks care. So, right from the PHC till the old age home, we have not been able to remove untouchability. So, when the law is in place, where are we going wrong with the implementation — turns out, it’s at every stage. To see if the law is working in full measure, there has to be a vigilance and monitoring committee at the state level, with the chief minister as its head, and 25 officials as members. The committee has to meet once in six months and review the progress of cases, check how many are pending at the police station and the court, monitor the performance of the public prosecutor and more. But, in these many years, the committee has been formed only thrice.
Special courts were supposed to be set up in every district to handle these cases; but, there are only about 13 of them in the state. When we look at the efficacy of the law, we are also having to see it in conjunction with the criminal procedures system it will include the police department, administration wing, medical and judiciary. And every department’s work (in the implementation of the law) has been poor. In cases where bail should not be granted, the suspect walks out on bail. Where the DSP is supposed to head the case, he himself has no awareness of the norms.
So, there’s negligence at every level. Tamil Nadu has a law that penalises government officers for wilful dereliction of duty but not one official has been convicted under this. Does that mean everyone is doing their job? Despite all this, there’s only so much a solution that laws and their implementation can offer. It can only be a tool. Beyond providing justice to the affected people, the long-term vision has to focus on allowing the law to bring about equality. But, where are we with that? In Tamil society, I think the most vulnerable people are Dalits; and more, Dalit women.
Where is there representation, political participation? Have they received the intended benefits from the government’s policies; have they obtained land? Eradication of caste is a social responsibility. Beyond the framework of rules, a journalist or an activist takes it up as their responsibility. But, a government is compelled to bring about policies and laws by means of affirmative action, rehabilitation and empowerment to make it happen. Are they vigorous in this work? Eradication is a huge task and we simply do not have the long-term policies and plans for it.
For the common man, we have to shame the act of discrimination; only when we impress upon all people that discrimination is something that will invite shame and disgrace on the one practising it, then we can hope to eradicate it. This holds true for any kind of discrimination, be it class or caste or gender-based. And we should learn to keep our beliefs outside of individual freedom. But, when the Supreme Court itself has little understanding of caste discrimination and goes as far as to offer a general opinion based on one case, what can we expect from common people?
A Kathir @Vincent Raj has been working in the field of human rights for over 25 years. His experiences and commitment to Dalit rights eventually led him to initiate Evidence in 2005, an independent organisation to fight against caste discrimination and for social justice and equality.
Even as we find more reasons to keep the ‘history repeats itself’ adage on the shelves, this Dalit History Month, here’s an attempt to learn from it. In this space, find Dalit writers, artists, creatives and activists tying together the then and the now, offering a way out of this debilitating impasse.