Since the day the constitution of India came into power, the state has ensured protection and prevention measures for atrocities aimed at the scheduled tribes and the scheduled castes of India. Through articles 15& 16&17 of the Indian constitution, discrimination has been abolished and special rights have been given to the historically oppressed and downtrodden populations of the SCs and STs. Reservations in government jobs and educational institutions were a way to ensure the normalization and cohesion of the so called lower castes and tribes with the mainstream. In an attempt to even enhance the security of the SCs and STs, the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of atrocities) Act, 1989 was passed by the legislature.
The objectives of the act clearly emphasize the intention of the government to deliver justice to these communities through proactive efforts to enable them to live in the society with dignity and self esteem, and without fear of caste motivated violence. The IPC (Indian Penal Code) lists down many crimes which are punishable in various degrees. Some of these crimes were even later additions to the IPC. This law denies anticipatory bail to the accused, and even the probation to convict is denied. It has various other provisions which makes the crimes aimed at the SCs and STs punishable to a very high degree, and also ensures that the accused can’t get away with the crime easily.
Recently, the supreme court of India tried to review this act; and the verdict given by the top court is the root of all the recent dalit protests in the country which claimed 9 lives. The court wanted to prevent the misuse of the act, as it is something which is quite common in cases filed under this act. The top court said “Innocent citizens are termed accused, which is not intended by the legislature. The legislature never intended to use the atrocities act as an instrument to blackmail or wreak personal vengeance. The false complaints to implicate innocent people have often been filed to promote caste hatred and perpetuate casteism”. The top court was hearing a petition filed by Subhash Mhajan, Maharashtra director of technical education, who had challenged a Bombay high court judgement.
The Dalit social and civil organizations all around the country thought of it as loosening the SC-ST protection act. They thought that it will motivate violence against their communities and their lives would be unsafe. Because of this, a full day Bharat Band was organized, which saw lakhs of people thronging the streets and protesting against the ruling, which they claimed was weakening the act. These protests were not fully non violent and many instances of targeted violence were reported in many cities, specially around North India. Apparently 9 people lost their lives and many more were injured in this conundrum which brought the lives of people to a stand still.
But the question which pops us is, ‘was the ruling really weakening the act?’, or ‘if not through this, how would the judiciary ensure that the law isn’t misused to proliferate casteism?’. People seem to be quiet about it. The centre has already filed a review petition on it, and the court has ordered a detailed hearing in 10 days. But still, the question was left unanswered that how could the misuse of this act be prevented? People who are against the verdict are saying that this law will further deteriorate the condition of the Dalits in the country, and already the amount of people convicted in such cases of caste based violence is quiet less. These questions seem to be hovering all around, and no parties involved have been able to give a proper answer. Politics play on the topic has already started, and the focus of the protests has attained a political discourse. Incidentally, many reporters asked the protesters that what are they protesting for? Many were clueless and some said reservations.
So the whole point is, that again an important issue has been trivialised into a debate of upper castes vs. Dalits, and no one seems to answer the important judicial question of the demarcations and jurisdiction of the SC and St protection act. I just hope that we find the answer to these questions pretty soon, or otherwise we have enough masala to cook our politics in.