Exception makes the rule

Apex court verdict will make the SC/ST Atrocities Act toothless, roll back social transformation

The verdict of the Supreme Court’s two-judge bench stating that the SC/ST Atrocities Act 1989 is being misused — and a lot of checks are needed to prevent such misuse — will have huge implications on Dalit assertion in the country. The judgment was made possible by the Centre’s failure to place before the court the complete facts pertaining to atrocities against SC/STs. It also did not apprise the court of the details of the conviction rate in such cases.

I am an OBC. All over the country, OBCs have been complaining that lot of false cases are being filed against them under the Act. In fact, on October 11, 2017, a BJP member, K Nagaraju, filed a case against me at Hyderabad’s Malkajgiri Police Station. Nagaraju argued that, as a Hindu Dalit, his sentiments — apart from that of the Arya Vysyas — were hurt by my book Samajika Smugglarlu, Komatollu. An FIR was registered and a notice was served to me by an officer of the rank of DSP. This is a clear case of misuse of the Act.

But should a national legal system go by such exceptional cases? Should it direct the country’s police system to ensure that no FIR be filed before a case under the SC/ST Atrocities Act is investigated by a DSP-level officer? The court also directed that no FIR should be registered against government servants without the approval of the appointing authority.

I will refer to another case in Telangana. Bharath Reddy, a BJP leader in Nizamabad district, forced two Dalits, Rajeswar and Lakshman, to take a dip in muddy water, beat them with a lathi, used foul language against them and videographed the episode — all this because they blew the lid on sand mafia activity in the area. Several Dalit and human rights organisations stood by the Dalits and ensured that a case under the SC/ST Atrocities Act was filed against Reddy. But after the FIR was filed, Reddy abducted the two Dalits. Even then, the police did not arrest him. They did so only after protests by the public at large.

The agrarian economy and the social structure in rural areas are such that conflicts are predominantly between the SCs and Shudras/OBCs. A number of cases are, of course, filed against the OBCs and Shudra caste like Reddys, Jats and Patels. But the arrest and conviction rate is very low.

There are a number of complaints about temple priests committing atrocities against Dalits, who want to enter the inner circle of the temples. But so far, no temple pujari has gone to jail for denying temple entry to a Dalit. In markets and at workplaces, Dalits face a variety of humiliating situations. Yet, there are no instances of shop owners or office workers being arrested under the SC/ST Atrocities Act. Untouchability is a major problem and the Act is meant to abolish this barbaric practice. In the process of implementation, some misuse could happen, a few innocent people could go to jail, but to make the Act toothless will amount to rolling back social transformation. That is what the Hindutva forces want.

The Ninth Annual Report of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes for 2015-16 was submitted to the President on August 16, 2016. The report was placed before Parliament on March 9, 2017. It says “There is a sharp increase in number of incidence of atrocities on SCs (from 3,36,55 in 2012 to 3,94,08 in 2013…as per data from 16 states, the tentative figures for 2014 are 51,672), rate of crime from increased from 16.7 per cent to 19.6 per cent in 2013. The crime rate was the highest in Rajasthan (52.98 per cent), Bihar (40.57 per cent) and Odisha (36 per cent)”. “There has also been a sharp decrease in conviction rate (from 29.6 per cent to 23.8 per cent) in the same period. UP has the best conviction rate, while West Bengal, Gujarat and Maharashtra have very low conviction rates,” the report notes.

The increase in cases of atrocities against the Dalits and the declining conviction rate is one aspect of the problem. We need to situate the issue in the current political context as well. Atrocities on Dalits have increased after the BJP came to power. Forces which practise old-fashioned untouchability have rallied around the BJP. Even the Shudra/OBCs who operate within the Hindutva ideological domain are against Constitutional reforms. They believe in the classical Varnadharma order in so far as the Dalit question is concerned. Such forces want the Act to go. The RSS mostly depends on these elements for its rural and semi-urban activities.

The untouchability question is central to the Hindu social order. The BJP/RSS wants to establish a Hindu Rashtra and nowhere have they promised to take take steps to abolish caste and untouchability. The Supreme Court’s Adhithayan Agamashastra verdict of 2015 affirmed the Agamashastra position. The verdict allowed the continuation of inherited Brahmin priesthood in temples and checkmated spiritual reform. As in the case of the SC/ST Atrocities Act, there was no serious intervention from the government in Adhithayan Agamashastra. The only reform that the BJP government has seriously worked for is the abolition of triple talaq.

Casteism and untouchability is a self-negating institutional mechanism that is built into Hinduism. If the courts do not examine this issue from the perspective of social equality — and continue to defend the right to practise untouchability by imposing all kinds of controlling mechanisms — they would end up harming Hinduism itself.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised many things to the SCs/STs in his election rallies, claiming that he is an OBC himself. But his government does not have the will to fulfill these promises because his party is a political wing of the RSS — not vice-versa — that is trained to maintain the varnashram dharma.

The writer is a member of T-MASS that works for social justice and reservation in the private sector