The position of the Dalits or Harijans, whom Gandhiji called God’s own people in appreciation of their services and long-term sufferings, has not improved much. Seven decades of Independence have failed to bring willing smiles on their faces. They still continue to submit to the decree of fate rather than have the benefits of the decrees of our basic laws. Liberty, equality and fraternity, so richly enshrined in our secular Constitution, have still to acquire a meaning for them.
As a result, weaker sections remain as vulnerable to attacks, indignities and discrimination as before. Instances of atrocities committed on them in Haryana’s Mirchpur, Gujarat’s Una, Rajasthan’s Nagaur and more recently Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur go to prove this harsh reality on the ground beyond any doubt. The story of relentless caste oppression in the form of untouchability, social and economic discrimination and violence is one and the same everywhere.
This is statistically borne out by the absence of a declining trend in the number of such crimes against them. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), crimes against Dalits rose from 39,408 in 2013 to 47,064 in 2014, rapes of their women went up from 2,073 to 2,233 and kidnappings and abductions too increased from 628 to 755 during the same period. All these figures, of course, relate only to registered cases, as majority of such offences, especially in rural areas, go unreported.
The tragedy lies in the fact that we have become immune to the plight of have-nots, unmindful both of the medieval-era sufferings inflicted on them and the shame that such incidents bring to our country as a whole.
Reasons for caste atrocities are not far to seek. The economic causes, identified by the Commission for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in its report, are disputes over land (especially those arising from land reforms), tensions created by alienation of tribal land, bonded labour, indebtedness and wage disputes.
The social causes for such crimes mainly arise from the practice of untouchability and demands for customary services, duties in burial and cremation grounds and beating of drums at festivals. In order to effectively prevent these outrages, the Commission suggested long ago a package of legal and administrative measures which include better implementation of existing laws and further changes in laws of criminal procedures, administrative and judicial set-ups.
It had also recommended training and orientation of policemen and prosecutors for dealing with atrocities largely stemming from centuries of socio-economic exploitation. Not that the government did nothing to check the recurrence of caste atrocities, but sadly, the preventive measures announced from time to time merely remained on paper. For instance, the Protection of the Civil Rights Act, 1956 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 have been on the statute book and are to be rarely enforced against offenders. It is because the status quo, of which oppression is a part, has been reinforced by honouring the most progressive laws in the breach rather than in observance.
In other words, it is the failure to follow up and more important, to upset the present power structure on which so much of the present order rests that has prepared fertile soil in which violence can flourish. It is an open secret that law enforcement agencies are insensitive to the injustice done to the weak. We have it on the authority of the National Commission for SC and ST that oppressed sections are extremely hesitant to file complaints with the police.
The panel has gone on record to identify the reasons for this as reluctance on the part of the police to register even grave crimes, delayed visits by the investigating officers to the scene of crime, late filing of charge-sheets, lukewarm prosecution and protracted legal battles in courts. All this is bad enough.
Worse still is that the very authorities, who are supposed to protect the oppressed, turn into willing accomplices, and even active participants in brazen acts. Sometimes, the very victims of atrocities find themselves accused of several offences foisted by the police on them at the instance of the vested interests who almost invariably enjoy the support of the right people in the corridors of power.
According to NCRB data 65 per cent of prisoners in our jails across the country belong to the SC, ST and other vulnerable communities, to say the least. Judiciary, the last hope of justice for the week, is no different from the other institutions of the State. There is solidarity within the courtroom between the police officer, the public prosecutor and the honourable judge. Hardly is any offender punished.
As a result, the percentage of acquittals in atrocity-related cases is always abnormally high and conviction woefully low. Neither the political executive nor the bureaucracy has been able to inspire confidence in the perpetually exploited sections that they are determined to change their attitudes.
As long as nothing tangible is done to remove this major lacuna, all the legislative and other moves initiated or envisaged – giving protection to land reform laws under the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, making more punitive and stringent laws, setting up special courts for trying cases of atrocities expeditiously and so on – will be of little use in practical terms. For all these measures to mean anything, the government has to muster political will and courage to face the problem squarely with determination.
Mere good intentions and noble gestures will not suffice or help to realise the constitutional goal of a casteless society free from oppression, discrimination and exploitation.
(The writer is Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Delhi High Court)