//Justice for Dalits still a dream

Justice for Dalits still a dream

IN FEBRUARY this year, Dalits in Mahmadpur — a small village near Kunjpura in Karnal district, Haryana — were attacked by members of the land-owning Rode community. Over 30 Dalits were seriously injured. The immediate provocation for the incident was a procession the Dalits were planning on the occasion of Ravidas Jayanthi. The police, on the advice of the village sarpanch (who belongs to the Rode community), refused to allow the procession to be taken past the "upper caste" area in the village. When the Dalits attempted to take out their procession, the police stopped them. The next day, in blatant violation of the law, the sarpanch allegedly instigated upper caste youth to attack the Dalits with hatchets and sickles by making announcements on a loudspeaker from the local temple. The attackers did not spare even women and children.

Tension between Dalits and the dominant castes in Mahmadpur had been simmering for a while. The Dalits had not supported the sarpanch during the panchayat elections, leading to resentment among his supporters. The sarpanch had cancelled a grant of land for a Ravidas ashram in the village made by his predecessor, and filed a case in the Punjab and Haryana High Court challenging the decision. Added to this, a Brahmin girl from the village had eloped with a Dalit boy around four months before the incident. They got married recently.

The events that followed the February incident were shocking. Instead of arresting those who attacked the Dalits, the police arrested 15 Dalits on false charges ranging from "dacoity" to "attempt to murder." Instead of framing charges against the sarpanch for allegedly instigating the violence, the police tried to pressure the injured Dalits into forming a 10-member "peace committee," with equal representation from both communities, and suggested that they reach a settlement.

Only after sustained pressure from Dalit rights groups, and political parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bahujan Samaj Party, did the police press charges against the sarpanch. He was finally arrested, weeks after the incident, and is now out on bail. Under sustained pressure, the police arrested eight other persons responsible for the attack. According to Sibash Kaviraj, Superintendent of Police, Karnal, the reason the sarpanch was not arrested earlier was to allow him to take part in the proceedings of the "peace committee."

The incident in Mahmadpur — a little over an hour's drive from Delhi — and its aftermath reflect a larger problem of the failure of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. It was enacted in 1989 specifically to act as a deterrent against physical, caste-based violence.

The Act widened the scope of criminal liability and included several acts of commission and omission not covered by the existing Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955. It provided for administrative measures for enforcement of the Act by making provisions for the establishment of Special Courts, and for the appointment of Special Public Prosecutors to conduct trials of offences under the Act. Special Courts have been given enormous powers, including the power to extern potential offenders from scheduled areas and tribal areas, and to attach the property of persons accused under the Act. Public officials who do not perform the duties prescribed under the Act can be punished with a jail term extending up to a year.

In a damning reflection of the non-implementation of this law, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in its Report on the Prevention of Atrocities on Scheduled Castes released in 2002, had said there was "virtually no monitoring of the implementation of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act at any level." It had pointed out that Vigilance and Monitoring Committees, as prescribed under the Act, had not been constituted and where such Committees existed they hardly functioned. The quality of prosecution was poor because the functionaries entrusted with the work lacked both competence and motivation, it said.

The report also quoted a study of 11atrocity-prone districts of Gujarat that found that 36 per cent of atrocities cases were not registered under the Atrocities Act. In 84 per cent of the cases where the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was applied, cases were registered under the wrong provisions to conceal the violent nature of the incidents. Charge sheets were framed in only 53 per cent of the cases registered under the Act, and over 22 per cent of cases registered were closed after investigation. According to these figures, over 92 per cent of the cases ended in acquittal.

Concerned about the inability of the criminal justice system to deal with caste-based violence, Dalit rights organisations have submitted a set of suggestions to the Police Act Drafting Committee currently framing a draft Police Act to replace the existing 1861 Act. These recommendations include the constitution of an independent body, comprising members of marginalised communities including Dalits, to look into complaints against the police.

They have suggested that the track record of police officers in implementing laws such as the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act be taken into account in evaluating their performance. Police officers found guilty of not implementing the Act should be punished as prescribed in it.

Besides these reforms, what is needed is better monitoring of the institutions created under the Act to correct the gross under-utilisation of the law. Recently, the Supreme Court issued notice to Central and State Governments on a petition filed by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, Sakshi-Human Rights Watch, and the Centre for Dalit Rights, asking for directions to ensure that they appoint nodal officers and set up Protection Cells as envisaged under the Act.

These are measures that the Centre and the States must implement urgently. For those at the receiving end of caste-based violence, what is at stake is not merely a temporary remedy, but the credibility of the legal system's ability to deliver justice.

Source: Siddharth Narrain, The Hindu