WHILE 2016 witnessed a marked confrontation between the Maratha and Dalit communities, with statewide agitations by the Marathas protesting what they claimed was misuse of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, the year actually recorded a dip in the number of cases filed under the Act. From 2,304 cases in 2015, the number of cases registered under the Prevention of Atrocities Act fell to 2,149 in 2016.
Similarly while seven cases were registered in 2015 under the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act, 1955, only four cases were registered under this law in 2016. The two laws are meant to safeguard the rights of the members of the ST and SC communities.
According to the Maharashtra Police, the dip in cases registered is on account of a massive awareness drive on the subject, however, activists view the police’s claims with scepticism. Interestingly, Ahmednagar district where a 14-year-old girl’s rape and murder in Kopardi village allegedly by Dalit youth in July turned into a flashpoint for the Maratha agitations, the number of cases registered in 2015 and 2016 remained unchanged, at 116 cases.
In Navi Mumbai, where 15-year-old Swapnil Sonawane was beaten to death allegedly by the family of a 15-year-old Maratha girl, the number of cases saw a spurt, from 13 cases under both laws together in 2015 to 26 cases in 2016. In Jalna and Nanded districts in Marathwada too there was a rise in the number of cases. In Jalna, 64 cases were registered in 2015, while 68 cases were registered in 2016. In Nanded, 75 cases were registered in 2015 whereas 108 cases were registered in 2016.
In Marathwada’s Beed district, however, cases dropped – from 100 cases in 2015 to 82 cases in 2016. Yavatmal in Vidarbha also saw a decline in the number of cases registered from 137 in 2015 to only 116 cases in 2016.
Civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde said the numbers themselves may not be evidence of any change in socio-economic relations among various communities. “While we respect the figures, numbers released by the state government cannot be termed as an indicator of the ground reality. The police is used by the state to manipulate figures according to the narrative that suits them,” Teltumbde told The Indian Express. Advocate Mehmood Pracha said the agitations may have in fact acted as a ‘pressure mechanism’, preventing Dalits from registering cases. “There is a hostile environment when it comes to registering a complaint under the said Acts. The agitation has demoralised the community further making them sceptical of the system and its police. I am not surprised that the figures have dipped in 2016,” said Pracha.
Professor Avatthi Ramaiah of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) said the poor conviction rates under these two laws may also be a discouraging factor. “Cases under the Acts are casually investigated and therefore they don’t end up in conviction. The requirement of the day is to improve the conviction rate,” he said.
In August last year, following the Maratha agitations, the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Cell of the Maharashtra Police undertook an exercise to study cases under these laws. An important finding of the study was that 33 per cent of acquittals were on account of hostile witnesses.
“One of the biggest problems leading to acquittals is that the cases are heard after a huge time gap. The witnesses therefore tend to forget what they had told the police during the investigations. In many cases they even fail to recall the incident itself. Therefore, the idea to hold moot courts was floated and some of the districts have started holding them,” added a senior police officer. At these mock courts, policemen pose as the public prosecutors, defence lawyers and judges and convene hearings. The witnesses are ‘examined’ and at the end of the hearing, they are given a ‘feedback’ on the points they need to remember while deposing before the ‘real’ court. “A massive sensitisation exercise was undertaken to ensure that conviction rates are bettered. Since September last year we have held 838 awareness camps, to sensitise both our men and the community on the provisions of the Act and the remedies available,” said Quaiser Khalid, Special Inspector General, PCR, Maharashtra Police.