The move to strengthen the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, has to be seen in the context of the next Lok Sabha elections due in less than a year. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government seems to think that by addressing the sense of insecurity of Dalits and tribals, it will be able to build a sizeable vote bank. The idea is to define “atrocities” a little more comprehensively so that if a Dalit or a tribal is prevented from contesting elections or such an elected person is prevented from discharging his duties or if any of them is socially or economically boycotted, the law can be used against the guilty.
One crucial change proposed is that the accused should have the foreknowledge that the victim is a Dalit or a tribal if the Act is to be invoked against him. Be that as it may, during the two decades the Act has been in force, it has not curbed the number of cases of atrocities against the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Far from that, the figures available with the National Crime Records Bureau suggest that atrocities against Dalits have more than doubled during this period. Even when the Bahujan Samaj Party was in power in Uttar Pradesh when the maximum number of cases were registered under the Act, there was no let-up in the atrocities against Dalits.
Police continue to show reluctance to register cases under the Act and even when cases are registered, they fail on the investigation front. Small wonder that the conviction rate in such cases has been abnormally low. It also needs to be pointed out that there have been instances when the law, which has stricter provisions for bail, was misused to punish innocent persons. The anti-rape law was strengthened recently but it has not reduced incidents of rape. Similarly, to expect the amended Act to reduce caste-based atrocities is not to know the social roots of caste discrimination, which needs to be fought socially, politically, economically and legally.