A two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court this month flagged “rampant misuse” of The Scheduled Castes And The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (POA Act), “as an instrument to blackmail or to wreak personal vengeance”, and allowed anticipatory bail for the accused in certain cases. The court mandated prior sanction by a superior officer before the arrest of an accused, and brought in a provision for a preliminary inquiry — all of which have been criticised as potentially diluting the scope for justice for the victims of atrocities.
An analysis of the number of cases under The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (POA Act) that have come for trial between 2010 and 2016, shows a massive spike in pendency, a steady decline in the number of cases that complete trial, and a fall in conviction rates.
The Indian Express looked at National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data on the number of cases before the courts since 2010 solely under the POA Act, not including the cases tried under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). By 2016, there was a 10% increase in the number of cases of crimes against SCs, and a 6% increase in crimes against STs.
In these seven years, the proportion of cases that were pending trial at the end of the year rose from 78% to 91% in the case of Dalits, and from 83% to 90% in the case of Adivasis. Of the cases in which trial was completed by the end of the year, a majority ended in acquittals. Conviction rates dropped sharply from 38% in 2010 to 16% in 2016 for crimes against SCs, and from 26% in 2010 to 8% in 2016 for crimes against STs.
If conviction rates are taken as a proportion of the total cases that came up for trial in each year (and not as a proportion of the total cases that completed trial), the figures are even more dismal. For instance, in 2016, only 1.4% of all crimes against SCs that came up for trial ended in convictions; for STs, the percentage was 0.8%. It is important to note that amendments brought in 2015 actually made the original 1989 Act even more stringent on paper.
Section 14 of the POA Act, 1989, mandated, “for the purpose of providing for speedy trial”, a Special Court in every district to try cases under the Act. According to the latest report on the implementation of the Act by the Ministry of Social Justice in 2015, there are only 194 such exclusive courts, fewer than a third of the number of districts in India. Only 14 states have set up these Special Courts; the rest have designated already stretched district and sessions courts for the purpose.
Rahul Singh of the National Dalit Movement for Justice, a Dalit advocacy nonprofit, said that often, the special public prosecutors, who are political appointees and have their own caste biases, are responsible for delays in the courts. Also, “convictions in the lower courts for heinous crimes under the Act end in acquittals on appeal on the grounds of ‘lack of evidence’, he said.
Some of the better known of these cases, all in Patna High Court, are the Bathani Tola massacre (1996, 21 Dalits) in which all 23 Ranvir Sena accused convicted by the lower court were acquitted in 2012; the Lakshmanpur-Bathe massacre (1997, 58 Dalits), in which 26 Ranvir Sena men were let off in 2013; the Miyanpur massacre (2000, 32 people, including Dalits), in which nine of the 10 accused were acquitted 13 years later; and the Nagari Bazaar massacre (1998, 10 CPI-ML supporters, mostly Dalits), in which 11 accused walked free in 2013.
Singh, who has helped one of the Lakshmanpur-Bathe victims to file an appeal in the Supreme Court against the High Court order, said that the case was admitted last year, but is yet to be listed for hearing. “Even in the Khairlanji massacre of 2006 (in which four members of a Dalit family were hacked to death by members of the dominant Kunbi caste after raping two of them and parading them naked), the (Nagpur Bench of Bombay) High Court ruled that it was a case of revenge killing, and had nothing to do with the Atrocities Act,” Singh said.
An examination of cases with the police under the POA Act, read with Sections of the IPC, show that between 2015 and 2016, reported crimes against Dalits increased by 5.5% (from 38,670 to 40,801), and those against STs by 4.5% (from 6,276 to 6,568). Rape and “assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty” constituted the largest number of cases of atrocities against SCs and STs. In 2016, the largest number of reported rapes of Dalit women was in UP (557), while rapes of Adivasi women in Madhya Pradesh (377), Chhattisgarh (157), and Odisha (91) accounted for 10% of all crimes committed against STs throughout the country.
Asha Kowtal of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch said the NCRB figures were nowhere close to being truly indicative of the extent and frequency of the crimes against Dalit women. “Quite apart from the high pendency and acquittals in court, police often do not file cases under the Atrocities Act because they want to play down caste violence. Studying 200 cases of caste crimes against Dalit women over the last year, 80% of which were cases of sexual violence, we found that FIRs were not filed immediately,” Kowtal said. Even when FIRs were ultimately registered, she said, “institutional biases” ensured they were full of factual inaccuracies, leading to the cases collapsing in court.
According to NCRB data, roughly 10% of cases of crimes against SCs and STs under police investigation are labelled as “false”. While there are, indeed, a few cases of misuse of minor charges under the Act, it’s an entirely different story with more heinous crimes, Kowtal said. “There are socio-economic boycotts, threats and intimidation, and pressure to compromise, leading to witnesses and victims changing their stand, and many cases are withdrawn or termed false by police after investigations,” she said.
P S Krishnan, a former Secretary to the Government of India, said the huge number of acquittals probably meant faulty investigation, or witnesses turning hostile for lack of protection. He gave the example of the March 2000 carnage in Kambalapalli, Karnataka, where caste Hindus burnt seven Dalits to death, but the sessions court acquitted all 32 accused after key witnesses, including a Dalit victim whose wife and three children were among those killed, turned hostile. In a letter to the government seeking a review petition against the Supreme Court’s recent order, Krishnan has said that the observation regarding the “abuse” of the law is “very drastic”, and “not backed with evidence and facts”.