Last week two news items appeared — one related to the killing of a sister by her brother in Pakistan to keep the family honour alive and the other related to repeated rape of a Dalit girl by a powerful gang of five in the city of Rohtak. Then there was belated report of an atrocious act by Gau Raksha samiti vigilantes who took the delivery of justice upon themselves and brutally assaulted the poor hapless Dalits who were doing their age old job of skinning dead cows.
The perpetrators of rape repeated it as a revenge for the audacity shown by the Dalit family to file a police case and refuse to accept a compromise. The first rape was committed three years ago but inaction on the part of authorities, concerned with the arrest of only two accused, who were later let off on bail, emboldened the accused to again challenge the law and brutalise the victim with a renewed vengeance. The victim and her family, who were already under threat and afraid, had shifted to the city to seek a secure place but failed to get both safe place and secure honour.
The accused are at large and may face the law, which, as they say, takes its own course. They are trying to hoodwink the system by creating or destroying evidences. The three year period has given them enough time to strike at their prey again.
These types of incidents are not isolated or stray ones. Every year more than forty thousand cases get registered across the country under the SC (Scheduled Caste)Act and it is a known fact that large number of cases go unregistered or unreported. The point to be noted here is that an incident which happened in Pakistan got a bigger media coverage than the one which happened in our own country. The reason? Because what happened in Pakistan was with a celebrity hurting the honour and sentiments of affluent and civilised sections of the society.
The incidents which happened in India, howsoever out of the ordinary, did not have the same effect.
The crimes happening against Dalits is increasing everyday. The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) updates the figures setting new records of its own every year. But one record is slipping from their hands and that is the conviction rate going down year on year both in comparison to its own figures of preceding years and the analogous figures of other heinous crimes.
There are special Acts legislated to prevent the atrocities on the weaker sections of the society — Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. There are special provisions in the law for investigations by a gazetted officer of the rank of Deputy SP to probe into such cases. Then, there are provisions to take care of the prosecution process including setting up of special courts. But why then the whole machinery is looking helpless? The gazetted officer, who ordinarily is not an investigation officer in other criminal cases and is considered as a supervisory officer, lacks the skills or constrained with the paucity of time at his disposal or for him the job, is too innocuous. And it takes years to complete the investigation and the accused gets the benefit of time and goes on bail.
The moment he is on bail, the fear of legal action fades away and he gets time to influence the process and witnesses. The long legal battle is not something which a poor person can afford and sustain. There is a lack of monitoring of prosecution process. By the time case is committed to the court for trial, it is already late.
There is a provision of financial help under the Act but the compensation is delayed.
Even where the provisions to make special drawl by invoking rule 27 of the treasury by the Collectors for disbursing the compensation, in case funds fall short in the provisioned budget, disbursements do not take place many a times as the conscience of the officers aren't really awake.
Now, these provisions have been diluted and the compensation has been linked to the progress of the investigation and conclusion of trial. In fact the SC/ST Act has come to be seen with negative connotations and perceived to be meant to harass the upper castes of the society. There are pulls and pressures on the victims to withdraw the case. There is a threat of social disharmony in the village including economic boycott.
It might happen that some stray false cases might have come up and that too with the connivance of influential people with a motive to settle scores. But that may be the case with other laws as well, as far as misuse or misapplication of law is concerned. But our society is more protective towards maintaining social harmony by maintaining status quo and honour of honourables. The poor or the depressed people are no threat to the social fabric. In fact, a few years ago in one of the states; the state government was forced to issue orders not to register a case under the SC/ST Act unless an enquiry was made. This is against the provisions of law but the law enforcing agencies are scrupulously following these government instructions. And who knows how many cases are guillotined in this way.
Laws are legislated according to the needs, aspirations and ethos of the society.
Our society, based on the vertical ladder of caste system, has survived this way for thousands of years. They had been used to seeing a person sitting at the last leg of ladder claiming no honour. Our Constitutional provisions and other laws which have come after independence have not really percolated down. Coupled with this had been their economic deprivation. Large sections of the society had enjoyed no property rights and were dependent for their livelihood as landless labourers and by doing menial jobs for the upper strata of the society. In fact, the colonial rulers who took such a pride in giving a sound legal system to this country did not disturb the status quo and rather took special care to create special provisions to alienate certain sections and castes from owning land.
Even after Independence, no state can claim to have implemented the land reforms. Second stage land reforms did not take place. Share croppers got the ownership rights but the tillers of the land did not get their rights. This may sound so weird to some people but in a predominantly agrarian economy, having a name in the revenue records does make a difference. It not only gives an assured source of livelihood but has a social recognition and lessens the dependence on others. Further, landless status also makes the person dependent on appurtenances to the lands. In fact, the rights like easement, to drinking water from pond or well or open land for relieving in the morning, way of right or enjoying pasture lands are equally critical. The village panchayats dominated by the influential persons are the true arbiters to decide the beneficiaries of common facilities and whosoever refusing to their diktat could lead to a thing called "huqqa paani bandh".
Some people may like to disagree but historical traditions are still continuing in many states where lands earmarked for SC/ST are used by other people with the sanction of village panchayat. There are even unelected caste panchayats whose word is more powerful than the actual law. The social and political leaders bow before them. The "dependent" people of the society do not have the liberty to boycott serving the masters. With limited means of living, the poor have no choice but to accept things as they are.
The continuous enjoyment of a seat at the higher ladder in the society has an inherent advantage.
Those who have been owners of a higher space would certainly find it difficult to share. We have still a predominantly rural society with a feudal mindset. And why only rural, in New Delhi everyday you find people who brag about their castes and sub-castes on window panes of the vehicles depicting logos of the progeny's credentials in bold letters. Both our political and social leaders do bemoan and lament when certain incidents attract public attention and raised hue and cry is palpable as to why "seventy beautiful years of independence" have not been able to reduce these unwanted incidents. Why such things bring bad name to our highly civilised and cultured country?
There is a need to move beyond this thinking. Our religious leaders need to condemn these social evils and specific incidents. There should be a strong resolve from all sections of the society with empathy. No law is effective if the majority refuses to accept it. The ethos of the society have to move and come to an adjusting point. The rivets of the loose system will have to be tightened. This country, which was struggling in the company of developing countries few years back, is poised to become a powerful economy and a super power.
The country's population is be the youngest in the world, providing highest percentage share of the work force by 2020. This demographic dividend would further multiply if biases in the society are subsumed and every citizen is allowed to have an honourable, dignified and respectful life.
The estranged people in the 21st century are not going to agree to the traditional and age old malaise for too long a period.
The author is a Dalit and former IAS official who served as additional chief secretary of the UP government.