THE bandh call given by various dalit organisations on April 2 evoked a militant response from dalits all across North India and places like Gujarat and Odisha. The protest was meant to be against the Supreme Court judgment which had diluted certain provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
But the rage on the streets and the widespread response points to a pent-up anger that has been building with the growing attacks on dalits and the naked expression of upper-caste domination which has increased, particularly in the BJP-ruled states in Northern India.
The anger is directed not only against the Supreme Court judgment but also against the BJP governments at the centre and the states. The Rohith Vemula death and the way the centre handled the issue; the Una incident of flogging dalit youth; the attacks on dalits participating in the Bhima Koregaon rally and the various moves by government agencies like the UGC to dilute reservation for dalits have amply indicated the anti-dalit outlook of the BJP-RSS combine, despite their overt moves to coopt dalits into the Hindutva fold.
The fact that nine dalits were killed in police firing also reveals the bias in the police force. They tend to be more trigger happy when confronting dalit protests.
The other disturbing feature of the violence on April 2 was the planned attacks on dalit protesters by RSS men and upper caste chauvinists in the Gwalior region of Madhya Pradesh and in some places in UP.
In the wake of the bandh protests, there has also been retribution by upper caste elements and Hindutvavadis. The arson committed on the houses of a dalit BJP MLA and a former Congress MLA in Karauli district, Rajasthan and attacks on dalits in some other places are an expression of casteist intolerance at any assertion in the public space by dalits.
The dilution of the provisions of the PoA Act have been justified as steps to protect innocent people from being harassed by false cases and being arrested on that basis. The judgment is divorced from the social realities under which dalits face constant oppression and discrimination. The need to have stringent provisions in a law that protects the rights of scheduled castes and tribes emanated from the fact that there is social and institutional bias against those lowest in the social order.
In fact the PoA Act in practice has not been able to act as a deterrent effective check against atrocities and oppression of dalits. That is why there was a prolonged movement for introducing more effective provisions and to plug loopholes. It was this demand which resulted in amendments to the PoA Act by parliament in 2015.
Even as the protests raged against the dilution of the PoA Act, statistics with regard to cases under the SC/ST PoA Act show the actual picture. According to the National Crime Records Bureau 2017 data, there has been a sharp decline in conviction in cases under the Act. The conviction rate fell from 38 per cent in 2010 to just 16 per cent in 2016.
As against this sharp fall in conviction rates, there has been an increase in the number of cases registered under the Act from 40,481 cases in 2010 to 45,286 in 2016.
So the main issue is not the filing of false cases (which does happen), but the failure to render justice to those who suffer oppression and atrocities.
It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court bench did not view the whole issue in the context of the serious imbalance and bias in the police and institutional procedures of justice prevalent in the country. It is also indicative of the insensitivity to caste oppression and prejudice which is often displayed by the higher judiciary.
It is to be hoped that the review petition filed by the central government will lead to the court revising its earlier judgment. Otherwise, the struggle against the dilution of the Act will continue.
(April 4, 2018)