Atrocities against Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) are a regular feature of the caste-based Indian society and distressingly, of late, they have begun increasing. What is ironical is that only recently, the country commemorated the 125th birth anniversary of B .R. Ambedkar, the icon of the depressed castes, particularly Dalits, and the principal architect of the Indian Constitution.
Among its several salient features, the constitution abolished untouchability. But it could not eradicate the caste system for obvious reasons: The caste system constitutes the “basic structure” of Indian society and its abolition would be tantamount to demolishing a “fundamental aspect” of the latter’s very existence.
The founding fathers thus clearly visualised that the caste system would continue and therefore adopted the principle of “affirmative action” to ameliorate the social, economic, political and educational backwardness of SCs and STs, and bring them at par with the rest of society. For this, successive governments in post-Independence India introduced many development and welfare-oriented policies and programmes, particularly population-proportionate reservation of seats in employment, educational institutions and central and state legislatures. While these measures have contributed significantly to the material advancement of SCs and STs, there has been no proportionate enhancement in their “social status”.
It is the Indian state — the legislature, executive and judiciary — that has miserably failed to check untouchability and the caste-based atrocities against the downtrodden.
Let me elaborate.
At present, two legislative measures deal with crimes against SCs and STs. The first, the Civil Rights Protection Act, 1955, deals with civil crimes — offences that violate their civil rights, which includes denial of access to public places like temples and restaurants, among others. The second, and more stringent, is the SCs and STs Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act, 1989. It has provided an elaborate legal arrangement comprising the definition and types of atrocities, the procedure to be followed by the state machinery in investigating them and the creation of fast track courts for the trials of the accused.
What is the scope of these atrocities and how is the state machinery handling them?
As per the annual report of the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, based on data collected by the National Crime Bureau for 2014, there were 609 cases of civil rights (CR) violations against SCs and STs in 2013, of which, 315 and 152 (76 per cent in total) were in just two states — Maharashtra and Gujarat respectively. And in both states together, only three people have been convicted, leaving 551 cases pending.
The report also notes that 39,408 cases of atrocities against SCs were registered under POA in 2013, which increased to 47,064 in 2014, a rise of 19 per cent. In the case of the STs, they rose from 6,793 in 2013 to 11,451 in 2014 — a staggering increase of 68 per cent.
The atrocities comprise serious crimes such as loot, arson, intimidation, destruction of crop, burning of houses, murder and rape.
According to the report, annually, rapes against SC and ST women are about 1,000 and 800 cases respectively.
So what about their legal status? According to the ministry report, the number of cases of atrocities, including those from the previous backlog, was 1.19 lakh as of 2014. The highest number of cases were in UP (28,000), Bihar (20,000), MP ( 13,576), and Rajasthan (12,800); these four large states constituted 63 per cent of the total crimes against SCs and STs in the country. The so-called progressive state of Maharashtra had 7,350 atrocities; Odisha, 7,700; Karnataka, 6,200; and Tamil Nadu, 5,600. Punjab and Himachal Pradesh registered the least number of atrocities.
The situation regarding trials is even worse. Of the 1.19 lakh cases in 2014, only 4,716 accused were convicted, while 11,900 were acquitted. The rate of conviction was 11 per cent in MP, 6.5 per cent in UP, 5.8 per cent in Rajasthan, 0.5 per cent in Gujarat, 0.6 per cent in Karnataka and 0.8 per cent in Maharashtra.
The number of cases that remained pending in the courts at the end of 2014 was 1.02 lakh — 85 per cent of the total. Of them, the four states of UP (25,000), Rajasthan (11,000), MP (10,000), and Bihar (18,800) accounted for 64 per cent.
Inadequate judicial and administrative arrangement is one of the factors that explains such a grim situation; for instance, of the 406 districts in the country, only 193 had mandatory fast track courts.
Other fundamental factors include indifference of the state administration, wilful bias in public prosecutions, non-availability or even destruction of evidence, the dominance of social and political ‘vested interests’ and the apathetic mindset of society.
With the Modi government in power, several “non-state actors” or “fringe” (in truth lumpen) elements such as gau rakshaks, who seem to value a dead cow more than humans, are daring to take law into their hands, as the case in Una in Gujarat illustrates. If these gau rakshaks are so concerned, why are they are not skinning the dead cows themselves? The recent vulgar remarks by the former vice-president of the BJP’s UP unit, Dayashankar Singh, against Mayawati is also a serious act of atrocity and he must be immediately booked under the POA.
This criminal humiliation of the depressed cannot continue unchallenged. There are about 20 crore SCs and 10 crore STs in the country.
They are equal citizens; their contribution to the nation has been enormous. The results of constant injustice are there for us to see in the post-Una rebellion in Gujarat. Ambedkar wanted to convert political democracy into economic and social democracy but the nation is heading towards social anarchy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must break his conspicuous silence, if social stability is really on his agenda.