On 20 March, the Supreme Court had laid down new guidelines that would protect people — including both public officials and private individuals — from immediate arrest under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, leading to widespread protests across the country. Nine people lost their lives as protests turned violent in many places.
Human rights activists and Dalit leaders worry that the apex court's ruling will lead to an increase in atrocities committed against Dalits and other religious minorities. This belief is not unfounded. In fact, crimes committed against Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in the country increased by over 71 percent between 2006 and 2016 according to data available with the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
VB Ajay Kumar, director of RIGHTS, a Thiruvananthapuram-based non-profit organisation, said, "The Supreme Court is clearly diluting the Act, which will worsen the situation for Dalits. The government should intervene and find a solution."
Talking on similar lines, writer and Dalit activist Sunny M Kapikkad, who believes that a rise in Hindutva forces is a major reason behind an increase in atrocities committed against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the country, also said that the Supreme Court ruling will worsen the situation for Dalits in the country.
"They (Hindutva outfits) see it (atrocities against minorities) as a permissible thing. They see it as the right thing. They don't see it as a crime. It's only a crime according to the Indian Penal Code, but not one according to their 'traditional code'," he told Firstpost.
The apex court, which on 20 April agreed to hear the Centre's review petition in the case, had in its earlier order said that it was aimed at protecting innocent people, but does not undermine the rights of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. A Supreme Court bench observed that the "act cannot be converted into a charter for exploitation or oppression by any unscrupulous person or by the police for extraneous reasons against other citizens, as has been found on several occasions", and that it is necessary to "express concern that working of the Atrocities Act should not result in perpetuating casteism".
A petition from the BJP-ruled Centre requesting review and suspension of the order was declined by the apex court.
Kumar said that the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act should be taken out of the purview of the judiciary and included in the 9th schedule of the Indian Constitution, which was introduced in 1951 to abolish the Zamindari system and make provisions for socially and economically communities.
"In the last decade, Hindutva followers, guided by a Brahminical mindset, have succeeded in creating hatred against lower castes and other religious communities. That's why we see more supporters of people committing atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes," Kapikkad said.
Records show a 25 percent increase in atrocities committed against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in a single year in Uttar Pradesh in the period between 2015 and 2016. Fourteen percent of 40,743 crimes registered against Scheduled Castes in the country in 2016 were from Bihar and 12.6 percent from Rajasthan. Schedule Castes, including Dalits, comprise 16.6 percent of India's population, according to the 2011 Census.
Blaming Hindutva forces for crimes against Dalits and other religious minorities, Kavita Krishnan, a member of the central committee of the CPI-ML, and editor, Liberation, said the BJP and the RSS "believe in the Manusmriti and not the Indian Constitution", and hence the rights of religious minorities are being abused.
"Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speeches in the book Social Harmony preach a harmonious integration of the Hindu caste system and hatred towards Muslims, rather than the annihilation of caste and Hindu-Muslim unity," Krishnan said. "Modi's article on Golwalkar refers to Ambedkar as a 'modern Manu'. No wonder the Modi regime has emboldened feudal forces to sharpen attacks on Dalits."
Krishnan said the Una incident, attacks on the Bhim Army, the government's complicity in the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and vicious attacks by RSS and BJP outfits on Dalits protesting against the dilution are examples of these attacks.
However, Rupesh Kumar, a Kerala-based Dalit activist, is positive about the betterment of Dalits in the country. "I agree that the rule and rise of Hindutva is an important factor. But at the same time, we now question inequality, particularly in Kerala," he said. "Many in our community now have the courage to question inequality. Those days of feudalism are gone. We don't budge and why should we? We have our own identity and culture which is more progressive and democratic than several others," he added.
Kumar feels that the rise in number of atrocity cases may be a result of this new-found courage, as more people are now registering complaints.
"Nowadays, crime records have a separate column to list out false cases or the misuse of any Act. The government should consider that and maintain the status quo of the (Atrocities) Act," Kumar added.
The author is a member of The NewsCart, a Bengaluru-based media startup.
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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2018 13:11 PM