An 11-year-old Dalit girl was brutally beaten up on 13 June in the village of Ganeshpura in Madhya Pradesh, because her shadow accidentally fell on the food of a higher-caste man when she was drawing water from a hand pump.
Her attackers tried to prevent her family from going to the police and threatened her with dire consequences if she was ever seen at the hand pump again.
This might not have been an empty threat. Within the last month, Dalit women and minor girls have been gangraped in Gurdaspur (Punjab), Saharanpur (Uttar Pradesh) and Kota (Rajasthan).
Men are not much better off. In February, an upper caste family from Jalaun in Uttar Pradesh cut off the nose of a Dalit labourer for eating on the same table as them at a wedding.
Last week, two Dalit boys were killed and three injured in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, by men from a Brahmin family when a fight broke out over something even more trivial – one of the Dalit boys did not have change for Rs 4.
A couple of days before these murders, a newspaper reported that 13 families in Ansurda village in Maharashtra have been ostracised from a Maratha-majority village for filing an FIR against upper-caste men, who objected to Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s birth anniversary celebrations by abusing Dalit women and defiling posters of Ambedkar.
It isn’t the Constitution that has let Dalits down. It is the execution of the stated intent that has failed them
Less than two weeks before this report was published, four Dalit men were killed and dozens of Dalit men and women injured in a clash between Meghwals and Jats in a village in Nagaur, Rajasthan. Hundreds of Dalits in the district fled their homes out of fear.
In another village in the same district, less than a month before this incident, a Jat farmer burnt the hands of a young Dalit girl for asking him to turn down the volume of music he was blasting on his tractor.
Somewhat conversely, in May, a 21-year-old Dalit man was crushed to death in the temple town of Shirdi in Maharashtra by men from the dominant Maratha and OBC communities, who were annoyed by his ringtone – a Dalit empowerment song in praise of Ambedkar that goes: “Kara kitihi halla, majboot Bhimacha killa (Shout all you want, Bhim’s fortress is strong).”
Against the Constitution
It has been 65 years since the Constitution promised equal rights to the oppressed castes and tribes, but discrimination and repression remain commonplace.
They continue to live in the shadow of violence, so normalised that it is hard to find a parallel in other democratic societies. That said, it isn’t the Constitution that has let them down, for the Constitution is merely a statement of intent. It is the execution of that intent that has failed them.
One of the most crucial pieces of legislation enacted to safeguard the fundamental and socio-economic, political and cultural rights of Dalits is the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and Rules, 1995 (PoA Act).
The statement of objects and reasons appended to the Bill while moving it in Parliament acknowledges that, “despite various measures to improve the socioeconomic conditions of SCs and STs, they remain vulnerable. They are denied a number of civil rights; they are subjected to various offences, indignities, humiliations and harassment. Serious atrocities are committed against them for various historical, social and economic reasons”.
The preamble of the Act says it aims “to prevent the commission of offences of atrocities against the members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, to provide for Special Courts for the trial of such offences” and “the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of such offences”.
It is critical to strengthen the provisions of the Act relating to appointment of special courts and prosecutors
But more than 20 years later, the PoA Act has, at best, had limited success in meeting its objectives. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), recorded cases of crimes against Dalits have gone up every year since 2009. As per the latest available figures, there was a 17.1% increase in 2013 from the year before that.
As for speedy trials, at the end of 2013, 84.1% of cases registered under the PoA Act were pending. The conviction rate under the PoA Act has also been declining steadily, coming down from 30% in 2011 to 22.8% in 2013.
In relation to the total number of cases in courts under the PoA Act, the conviction rate is less than 5%. As is the average conviction rate for trials completed between 2011-2013 for crimes against SCs registered under other Acts.
These appalling numbers underpin the account of how this Act has systematically been undermined. While the main reasons for its failure are rooted in the lack of social and administrative will, the Act itself has several loopholes that allow it to be exploited and disregarded.
Need for change
In 2009, a small group of Dalit activists came together to discuss the poor implementation of the PoA Act and formed the National Coalition for Strengthening the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (NCSPA).
The NCSPA has since grown into a network of over 500 Dalit, Adivasi and human rights organisations and individuals. After months of consultations with vulnerable Dalits and Adivasis on ground, they gathered evidence on the efficacy of the current system and, based on their report, proposed amendments to the PoA Act.
One of the key amendments proposed is the addition of new offences that are currently not within the purview of the Act, but reported regularly. Offences relating to socio-economic boycott, destruction of property, limiting access to opportunities, humiliation of men and women, as well as offences under the Indian Penal Code such as rape, kidnapping and causing grievous hurt are excluded. This denies victims the added layer of protection the Act is designed to guarantee.
Another important amendment is the clarification of terms that have been narrowly interpreted by courts and investigating officers to imply that there can be no case, nor conviction under the Act if caste was not a motivating factor in the attack.
The difficulty of proving ‘mens rea’ or state of mind has rendered the Act toothless. The amendments propose that as long as it can be reasonably assumed that the perpetrator was aware of the victim’s caste, no further proof of intent should be required.
A fundamental component of the PoA Act is holding authorities responsible for failing to discharge their duties under the Act. This is a component that needs to be fleshed out and clearly defined to close the loopholes created by the ambiguity of language.
The importance of this cannot be stressed enough, given the evidence that authorities are apathetic, if not entirely antithetic, to the implementation of the Act.
It is also critical to strengthen the provisions relating to the establishment of special courts and appointment of special public prosecutors and introduction of a new chapter on the rights of victims and witnesses.
These, and other changes suggested, are the bare minimum needed for the effective implementation of the PoA Act. And yet it took a number of marches, public demonstrations, consultations and private meetings with politicians across party lines for the UPA 2 government to set up an inter-ministerial committee to draft the Amendment Bill in line with the recommendations of the NCSPA and the National Advisory Council.
The Bill was finally cleared by the Cabinet on 12 December 2013 and sent to the Parliament in its last session before the general elections. Given the range of issues that needed attention in that session, the Bill could not be ratified, but was turned into an Ordinance as an interim measure.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Ordinance, 2014, was one of the two Ordinances inherited by the Modi government.
While the Securities Laws (Amendment) Ordinance was introduced as a Bill and passed in August last year, the PoA Amendment Ordinance was allowed to lapse and referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment.
The committee submitted its report on 19 December 2014, suggesting some changes, but essentially recommended that the Bill be passed without dilution.
The Modi government has, in the last one year, promulgated 13 Ordinances, enacted many more bills and been in the news for pushing controversial reforms that are widely seen as anti-poor.
And yet, bewilderingly, it has failed to move on the PoA Amendment Bill that is backed by a wide political and civil society consensus.
Earlier this month, the social justice ministry announced its plan to send 100 SC/ST students on a tour to British and American institutions where Ambedkar studied. At a time when thousands of Dalits are struggling to live with dignity, this sort of vacuous tokenism seems absurd.
In a similar gesture, on 20 April this year, the Prime Minister laid the foundation stone for the Ambedkar International Centre in Delhi. The government has allotted Rs 195.74 crore for this centre, which will include a library, a convention centre and an exhibition on the life of Ambedkar.
Though it may have symbolic meaning, there is little it can do to make India a safe and just place for over 25% of its citizenry that has been disenfranchised for centuries.
Speaking at the ceremony, Modi praised Ambedkar with the platitudes we have heard from him throughout the general election campaign. But without serious law reform, accountability and enforcement, the fortress of Bhim is a distant dream, just like the dead man’s ringtone.
First published on Catch