The Haryana government recently announced its intention to rehabilitate 254 Dalit families that had migrated after two people were burnt alive in caste related violence in Mirchpur village of Hisar district eight years ago. The attack was over a barking dog. In January 2017, a similar incident occurred over a cycle race. The people of Mirchpur will claim that there’s no caste tension, it’s a coincidence that Dalits are constantly attacked.
This coincidence extends to the entirety of India. Despite stringent laws and regulations, crimes against minorities don’t seem to be decreasing. Add to this the recent Supreme Court judgement weakening the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and it would appear that the safety of Dalits does not seem to be a priority for the country.
The Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act was passed in 1989, against the backdrop of increasing crimes against minorities. This was a response to crimes such as murder, rape, forced and unpaid labour, denial of basic rights, untouchability, exploitation and abuse, and others specifically targeting specific sections of society on the basis of caste. Crimes charged under this act instead of the Indian Penal Code were supposed to lead to a non-bailable arrest of the offender and imprisonment ranging from six months to life imprisonment or death, depending on the crime. The act also allowed for the provision of special courts, special public prosecutors, and choice of prosecutor to the victim.
There has been little abatement in crimes against Dalits despite this. But on March 20, the Supreme Court of India delivered a judgement stating “there is a need to safeguard innocent citizens against false implication and unnecessary arrest…” The court claimed that “60% of arrests made were unnecessary or unjustified,” and that the act is misused to wreak personal vengeance. The apex court added the provision for anticipatory bail and banned the automatic arrests of public servants booked under the act. This led to the Bharat Bandh across the country on April 2.
Dalit leaders argued that the Supreme Court's judgement was deeply flawed. At a May 1 protest in Delhi, N Paul Divakar, general secretary of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), told VICE that it took tremendous pressure on the police to file an FIR in the first place, let alone misuse the act in favour of Dalits.
Take the case of three members of a Dalit family in Jawakhede village of Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. In October 2014 all three were murdered and dismembered. It was rumoured that this was because the son, 19-year-old Sunil Jadhav had had an affair with a woman from an upper-caste family.
Despite the brutality, no arrests were made. The family of the girl was related to a local MLA and the police chief.
A 2014 research study conducted by Jayshree Mangubhai and advocate Rahul Singh found that Dalit victims are often intimidated by upper-caste members into not lodging an FIR. Even if they overcome the pressure, police officers refuse to register the case, or impose weaker sections in the chargesheet.
In the case of Preeti Kumari, a 13-year-old Dalit girl, whose tortured body was found on the railway tracks behind her school in Gaya Bihar last year, an FIR was registered. It named Vidyapathi, a warden of the school hostel. Kumar was last seen entering the warden’s room late at night. However Vidyapathi was transferred to another school, and no further action was taken.
These cases imply a weak and cursory implementation of PoA Act on a grassroots level.
According to crime statistics from National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), around 1.5 lakh cases under the PoA Act were pending in courts in 2016. Of these cases, only 11.65 percent reached the trial stage, of which only 23.5 percent (4,115) ended up in conviction.
The study attributes this to the lack of special courts and their sluggish operation. According to the act, every district in the country is expected to have a special court so as to fast-track the cases. However, the study reveals that “only nine out of 35 states/union territories have set up a total of 170 special courts.”
The data also points towards a high number of cases deemed “false or mistake of fact”—around 15-20 percent, which is the number the Supreme Court has latched onto.
Mangubhai explained to VICE that the number is suspect: “There are systemic biases in the police and judicial system,” she said. The police, she explained, fail to investigate cases or close them as “false or mistakes of fact” if they know the perpetrators. In small and far flung areas, this is often the case.
Today, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a review petition of the judgement. The government is also planning to introduce an ordinance in the monsoon session of Parliament to overturn the contentious judgement. While these measures may help retain the intention of the PoA Act, the question is, was it ever effective enough to begin with?