By Dr Umakant
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may hope to make Babasaheb Ambedkar’s India a reality, but he must realise that mere pronouncements will remain meaningless if there is no sincere effort on the part of the government and society at large to annihilate the Brahmanical caste system which is solely responsible for keeping Dalits and Adivasis apart, yet a part of the socio-economic and political set up that we have in India.
The recent Supreme Court verdict on the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which diluted some of its provisions, has led to an unprecedented protest across several states. It took more than ten days for the government to file a review petition in the Supreme Court. The verdict, as well as the delay on the government’s part, created a sense of distrust among a large section of Dalits and Adivasis, which led to an outpouring of anger onto the streets.
This protest was unprecedented because it was largely led by ordinary Dalits and Adivasis, while political parties and their leaders played a secondary role. Nobody had expected such a huge turnout – one which has the potential to throw any political combination out of power in future.
This anger must be handled with a great amount of care and sensitivity, or else the situation may go out of control. It would be instructive to quote Babasaheb Dr B. R. Ambedkar, when he spoke on November 25, 1949, in the Constituent Assembly of India, “From January 26, 1950, onwards we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality, one man, one vote, one vote and one value. In society and economy, we will still have inequality. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man-one value.”
“How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.
“We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up,” he had added.
In the light of the above caution as well as the experiences of Dalits and Adivasis in their daily struggle for dignity, equality and justice, is it fair to fiddle with whatever constitutional safeguards that have been provided, which could possibly pave the way for an egalitarian society based on the notions of liberty, equality and fraternity?
It is worth noting here that our Constitution only abolished untouchability arising out of the caste system. It does not talk about annihilating the caste system itself which has been and continues to remain responsible for dehumanising a quarter of India’s population.
The Untouchability Offence Act, 1955, which was later amended and re-christened as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1976, proved to be ineffective in dealing with monstrous attacks on Dalits and Adivasis on an everyday basis. That is how the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 came into being.
The term “atrocity” was defined for the first time in this Act. Provisions were made for more stringent punishments for committing such offences/atrocities. States and Union Territories had to take specific preventive and punitive measures to protect the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) from being victimised; where atrocities were committed, to provide adequate reliefs and assistance to rehabilitate them.
A public servant who does not belong to the SC and ST community and who willingly neglects the duties under the Act can be imprisoned for six months to a year. This Act, along with the rules framed under it, has laid down elaborate procedures for ensuring protection to SCs and STs by providing for special courts, special public prosecutors, prescribing deputy SP rank of police officers for investigation, fixing period for investigation, etc.
The rules also provide for setting up SCs and STs Protection Cells, appointment of nodal officers in the rank of Secretary to the government at the state level and a special officer at the district level, constitution of vigilance and monitoring committees at the state and district level, besides payment of relief and traveling allowances, etc., to the victims of the atrocities and their families.
Persons arrested under the Act do not have the right to seek anticipatory bail. It is the responsibility of the Centre to place an annual report before Parliament on the progress of implementation of the Act. It was passed with a great deal of fanfare, to give special protection to this vulnerable section.
But the facts on the ground tell a different story altogether. This Act was further amended in 2014 to make it more effective in dealing with the ever-growing crimes against Dalits and Adivasis in the country. From 1990 to 2016, until when National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data is available, it is clear that hundreds and thousands of reported and non-reported cases from across the length and breadth of this country belie the claim of India being a modern country with a humanist Constitution.
For years together there has not been much on part of the central government as well as the state governments to fully implement several provisions of this Act. The question that needs to be asked is, “If government fails to implement with full sincerity an Act like this, could the judiciary dilute some of its provisions on the grounds of misuse of the Act by its victims?”
It goes without saying while it is good to have a Constitution as well as laws, more importantly what is needed is due-diligence and accountability of the state as well as of the non-state actors.