The Supreme Court order ‘diluting’ the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act continues to agitate Dalits who are observing Bharat Bandh on August 9.
In March end, ‘Pandits’ in Tatarpur village in the Hapur district of Uttar Pradesh, destroyed the crops of Bhishm Siddhu, fought with his family members and thrashed his minor son. The reason: Siddhu, a 42-year-old Dalit social worker, had complained against a liquor shop creating nuisance at the start of a ‘Dalit road’. A month, or even two weeks ago, this wouldn’t have perhaps happened. But the Supreme Court judgment of March 20 that ruled against immediate arrest in cases filed under Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 2015 — to prevent misuse of the law by vested interests — changed the ‘power equations’ in society once again, as Siddhu says.
With the legal weapon they had rightfully been given to claim their dignity blunted, the Dalits across the country have been feeling a deep sense of anger and betrayal by a ‘system’ — dominated by upper castes — that they feel has conspiring to keep them subjugated.
The SC judgment lay down a number of guidelines for the arrest of the accused under the Act, 2015 to avoid frivolous cases against public servants and citizens to settle personal scores. The court ruled that a person accused under the Act will be arrested only after the superintendent of police gives the go-ahead while a public servant if accused, can be arrested with the permission of the appointing authority.
The reaction among Dalits across the county was fierce and spontaneous. Without any political prodding, Dalit groups across the country mobilised to hold a Bharat Bandh on April 2.
Given the rise in attacks on Dalits in various parts of the country in recent years, the reaction was not surprising. From the Una flogging incident to the lynching of a Dalit youth in Rajkot and hacking of three Dalits to death in a village in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga district, the community has bore the brunt of extreme caste prejudices. That’s the reason the pot of Dalit anger has been kept boiling. Another Bharat Bandh has been planned on August 9, even as the Central government, feeling the heat of countrywide Dalit anger, has decided to introduce a Bill in the ongoing Parliament session to overturn the SC order and restore the original Act.
For the Dalits, that’s not enough. The damage that the dilution has done will take longer to repair. “Earlier when we approached the police, they would hear us out. When we went to the police station after the incident that day, they refused to register our complaint. The entire blame for the incident was put on my family. The judgment had a direct impact on our daily lives,” said Siddhu. That explains what the judgment meant at the ground level: reinforcing the caste equations that would have deprived the Dalits of the legal shield the act gave them.
Said Badri Narayan, a Dalit idealogue and professor at JNU: “The law was an instrument in the hand of Dalits. They require this sharper protection to preserve their dignity.”The August 9 bandh coincides with the Quit India Movement and World Indigenous Day. Dalit activists assert that this protest is about preserving their dignity and not about demanding opportunities they have lost out on for decades.
The Dalit groups have said the August strike would be called off only after the Centre agrees to two demands — the release of five leaders imprisoned under the National Security Act and withdrawal of “arbitrary” charges slapped on Dalits during the April 2 bandh. The five Dalit leaders imprisoned include Chandrasekhar Azad, a founding member of the Bhim Army, Shivakumar, Sonu, Upkar Bawre and Yogesh Verma.
“It is unfortunate, but we have to go ahead with the protest if the government does not accede to these two demands” said Ashok Bharti, chairperson of All India Ambedkar Mahasabha, an umbrella organisation fighting for Dalit rights. According to Deepak Gahlot, part of Lawyers’ Initiative Forum which collected data from the ground, over 800 cases were filed against protesters in Meerut alone. “They were only protesting for their rights,” said Bharti.
Eleven people lost their lives in the country that day. “These were targeted killings of Dalits leading the protests in cold blood. The media tried to falsely portray this as a violent protest. Politicians failed to stand by the families of those killed in the April 2 protest,” Bharti. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, 7,001 people were convicted in 2016 for crimes against the Scheduled Caste population while 21,079 people were acquitted. In 2016, the conviction rate of those accused of committing atrocities against the SC/ST population was 25.8 per cent. “The Supreme Court is saying that the law is being misused, but the question where is the law being used?” asked Bharti.
Being on the bottom of the caste hierarchy, Dalits have not just lost out on educational and employment opportunities but atrocities have been perpetrated against them despite all various legal provisions.
Shibkumar, 26, in Farooqabad tried unsuccessfully to clear the UP Police daroga Recruitment. His aim to get a government job remained unfulfilled. Now he gives tuitions to children in the locality and runs a small dairy business. “Upper-caste boys in my class went ahead in life. I could not. My cousin could not even secure an attendant's job in an office as they would not drink water served by a low caste person,” said Shibkumar.
Nidhi in Saharanpur has a similar story to share of missed job opportunities. A BEd degree holder, she failed to get a teacher's job in a government school. According to the socio-economic caste Census of 2011, only 3.95 per cent SC households in rural India have salaried government jobs. Among ST rural households, 4.36 per cent have government jobs. “The dismal state of employment opportunities for Dalits even today is akin to them being unemployed,” said Rajkumar, a social activist in Saharanpur.
Politicians eating food in Dalits households while the ground situation remains unchanged reduces these acts to political gimmicks. Vikas Dayal, social activist in Hapur, said, “The politicians are eating in the Dalits' houses. But that's being done at the cost of taking away the food of Dalits.“It is necessary to gain economic independence for Dalits to defy the systemic oppression, says Kapil Burman, an activist in Saharanpur. “That's why we have to fight for our right.” The upper caste deeply resents the rise of Dalits into a strong middle-class, said writer Chandrabhan Prasad. “A Dalit on a horseback is feared.”
TARGETED FOR CASTE
Shirdi, Maharashtra: In May 2015, a Dalit youth was brutally assaulted and killed in the temple town over his mobile ringtone of a song on Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar
Una, Gujarat: In July 2016, four Dalits were lynched by cow vigilantes in Una town for skinning dead cows
Anand, Gujarat: In October 2017, a 21-year-old Dalit was killed by upper caste Patel men for attending a garba
Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh: In February 2018, a Dalit law student of Allahabad University died after being attacked with iron rods
Attappady in Palakkad, Kerala: In February 2018, a mentally unstable tribal man, Madhu Chindaki, was beaten to death by a mob of 40 people after he was accused of stealing food
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, made the previous SC/ST Act of 1989 more stringent. It added new categories of actions to be treated as offences committed against SCs/STs and amended certain existing categories.
New categories of offences: Tonsuring of head, moustache; compelling to do manual scavenging, dig graves or dispose/carry animal or human carcasses; garlanding with footwear; denying access to irrigation facilities or forest rights; abusing in caste name; forcing a Dalit to leave one’s house; touching or using words, acts or gestures of a sexual nature against SC/ST members; disrespecting any deceased SC/ST person held in high esteem; preventing SC/ST candidates from filing of nomination to contest election; defiling objects sacred to SC/ST members
Establishment of exclusive special courts at district level and specification of exclusive special public prosecutors to try the offences under the Act
Power of special courts and exclusive special courts to take direct cognisance of offence and completion of trial in two months from the date of filing of the charge sheet
Presumption would be added to the offences: if the accused was acquainted with the victim or his family, the court will presume the accused was aware of the caste/tribal identity of the victim