A popular slogan you will hear in agitations by organisations calling themselves progressive is: “Har zor zulm ke takkar mein, sangharsh hamara naara hai.” (Struggle is our slogan against every form of wrong and injustice). However, in practice, protesters belonging to almost all ideologies — progressive or otherwise — raise their voice against select forms of zor and zulm, and keep silent in the face of others. Worse still, they sometimes urge for the continuation of some forms of wrong and injustice.
We are seeing this right now when all political parties have come together to slam the recent Supreme Court (SC) ruling to curb the misuse of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Feeling the heat of the Opposition’s allegation that it is “anti-Dalit”, the Modi government quickly decided to file a review petition against the apex court’s ruling. Nothing better was expected from the BJP, which is allowing expediency to trump over principles at a frightening rate. Alarm bells are already ringing for the ruling party, even though the 2019 Lok Sabha polls are a year away. Who wants to lose a vote bank? Who bothers to examine the merit in the Supreme Court’s ruling?
The merit of the ruling is self-evident to all unprejudiced and justice-loving observers. Has the court ruled that the so-called Atrocities Act should be scrapped? No. Has it rendered it “toothless”, and made it ineffective, as has been argued by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd (‘Exception makes the rule’, IE, March 26)? No. All that it has done is to ensure that the “teeth” of the law do not bite innocent people and, no less important, the flaws in the law do not “perpetuate casteism” in Indian society. It has done so by (a) affirming that it cannot remain “a mute spectator when the law is being misused to frame innocents in criminal cases”; and (b) laying down stringent guidelines (“no automatic arrest”) to prevent its misuse.
Contrary to Shepherd’s argument, misuse of the Atrocities Act is not an “exception”. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, about 15 per cent of the total complaints in 2015 were false, and 75 per cent of the cases resulted in acquittals or withdrawals. Sadly, reverse casteism — the phenomenon of some people belonging to the SCs behaving in a casteist manner with those belonging to “upper castes” by abusing the protection given by the Act — is something rarely investigated by the media, studied impartially by academics, and highlighted by politicians. Doing so carries the risk of being branded “anti-Dalit”. Nevertheless, this phenomenon is there for all to see.
When mammoth Maratha Kranti Morcha rallies took place in almost every town and city in Maharashtra a year ago, their first demand was: Scrap the Atrocities Act. Why? Because of an incident involving the gang-rape and murder of a minor Maratha girl. An isolated instance in a single village could not have brought lakhs of protesters on the streets.
I have personally known several cases of the misuse of the Act and how the criminal justice system subjects innocents to fear, humiliation and harassment. In 2014, a case was registered against T P Lahane, a reputed eye surgeon and dean of the government-run JJ Hospital in Mumbai. Although he himself belongs to a nomadic tribe, a sweeper working in the hospital accused him of making a “casteist” slur. After three years, he was acquitted by the trial court.
Parle Tilak Vidyalaya Association runs some of the best colleges in Mumbai. It was established nearly a hundred years ago by the followers of Lokmanya Tilak after his death. (An important and by no means unrelated aside:Shepherd’s book Untouchable God maligns Tilak as a rank casteist and communal leader.) The principal of one of its institutions, Sathaye College, has been a victim of not one but two cases under the Atrocities Act. In 2006, she issued several memos to a lab assistant for dereliction of duty and undisciplined behaviour. He filed a case accusing her of making a “casteist” remark. The case, which ran for three years, ended with her acquittal. In another case in 2015, she was accused of “stealing” the fees from SC-OBC students. Fearing arrest, she had to avoid staying in her own house before getting anticipatory bail. Curiously, the government officer who made the accusation has not appeared in court even once so far, nor furnished any evidence, although the principal concerned has had to make many appearances. She is sure of being acquitted, but none will be penalised for wrongfully using the Atrocities Act against her.
M P Sadekar, a 78-year-old advocate (one of the founders of the Shiv Sena) has acted as an independent enquiry officer in many such cases. He introduced me to the persons who suffered in four of them. In one, a college lecturer, a habitual drunkard, fell in the classroom under the influence of alcohol. In another, a clerk had embezzled college funds. In a third, a teacher in a school for the deaf was suspended for physical assault on a student. In a fourth, an attendant in an engineering college was caught red-handed in a corrupt act. In all these cases, the Atrocities Act was invoked when the authorities initiated disciplinary action. In each of them, the accusation was the same: Use of casteist remarks. Each of them fell through. Such cases abound all over India, including many involving blackmail.
Of course, there are also numerous genuine cases of atrocities against SCs and STs. The most recent is the killing of a SC youth in Gujarat for the “crime” of owning a horse. These acts of barbarism are a blot on Hindu society, and the guilty must receive swift and deterrent punishment. But can low conviction rate justify willful misuse of a law, and the zulm of denial of fundamental rights to innocents? The Supreme Court would be failing the Constitution if it entertained the government’s review petition and withdrew its own welcome ruling.
A final thought: The Modi government has rightly brought in a bill in the triple talaq matter, even though instances of misuse of this provision are far less than those of the Atrocities Act. Why then is it acting in a contrary manner by rushing to the Supreme Court with a review petition to protect the latter’s exploitative potential? Why this double standard?
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