It will take the mutually reinforcing efforts of law and politics to fight caste atrocities
The move to amend the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,1989,may come at a politically useful moment for the UPA,but it promises a long overdue relook to strengthen its provisions. The act itself was a recognition that discrimination is hardwired into the caste system,and that it would take a punitive law to help dismantle its manifestations,from extreme violence and humiliation to exclusion from public spaces and practices like bonded labour and manual scavenging. While the act was an advance on earlier laws,and seemed to be drafted with a fuller acknowledgement of the enormity of the problem,the two decades since have revealed that it leaves a range of oppressive practices unaddressed,and is not comprehensive enough to counter the institutional bias in police stations and courts. After the Khairlanji killings,the prime minister himself rued that the SC-ST Prevention of Atrocities Act had not been effectively used,that cases continued to be registered under weaker sections of the IPC.
Over the last several decades,politics has helped to reconfigure caste equations and empower large sections of disprivileged groups. Even so,strong legal protections remain necessary,though they will,in turn,need to be held up by political will. The conviction rate,already low for other crimes,is especially low when it comes to caste-based crime. The police are reluctant to file FIRs,and consequently,statistics are hugely understated. Yet,according to NCRB data,the registered crimes committed against SCs are increasing: 14,318 in 1981,17,646 in 1991 when the act was passed,and 33,594 in 2009. Even during Mayawatis term in UP,when the conviction rate for crimes against SCs and STs was higher than ever,the state also saw increased crime against Dalits a sign not just of the greater willingness,even unusual alacrity,of the police in registering cases,but also a pointer to the gathering backlash against increasing ground-level Dalit assertion.
The proposed amendments to the law concretise genuine patterns of injustice from preventing SCs and STs from engaging in political activity,blocking access to common resources like water bodies,preventing entry into places of worship,dispossessing them of land or crops,filing counter cases to thwart legal redress,to public humiliation and more. They also raise the penalties for public servants for not recording cases and monitor delays in court. These are important changes. Caste discrimination and violence have deep and tangled social roots. It will take the sustained and mutually reinforcing efforts of law and political will to fight it. This should not be thought of in terms of profit and loss for any political formation. It is simply what we need to do to call ourselves a humane society.