At least ten Dalits died on 2nd April 2018 in India. This was in addition to the 2 Dalits murdered on an average day in the country in violence that is normalised. The average daily toll also includes houses destroyed, a dozen Dalits brutalised, and, again on an average, the rape by upper caste men of 6 Dalit women somewhere or the other in the country.
The figures do not include Dalits who commit suicide, or remain silent in the face of abuse that persists decades after untouchability was outlawed. Despite BR Ambedkar’s cry to annihilate it, Caste survived the coming into force of the Constitution of India, effectively killing the soul of affirmative action programmes and provisions enacted by successive governments. “I am an untouchable, but for the moment of my rape,” a Dalit woman had told the writer of the Human Rights Watch document “Broken People” some years ago. Its tragedy continues to echo across the face of the nation.
The violence took place during the historic nation-wide Bharat Bandh called by scores of Dalit organisations, forums and intellectual groups, to protest what they, and many civil rights groups, saw as a removal of the only protection in law the Dalits had against daily violence and persecution at the hands of upper caste men, and the impunity given by the state apparatus and its political overlords.
It had been quietly seething since the suicide of Hyderabad scholar Rohith Vemula two years ago, coming to a boil in Una in Gujarat, and then in the reaction to the slaying of Dalits in the murderous war waged by Gau Rakshaks, cow protection gangsters, on Muslim dairy farmers and cattle traders. Dalits, already victims in their own identity, became collateral damage in the communal violence unleashed by the Hindutva groups who were now fully backed by state and national governments.
“The BJP is trying to push India into a caste war.” These were the strong words, used by a former Inspector General of Police, and now a leader of the Dalit movement, S R Darapuri: who singled out upper caste outfits such as the notorious Karni Sena of Padmavati film infamy, and police involvement in the firing on the Dalit processions during the upsurge of Dalits across the country.
Darapuri said the BJP, which rules at the Centre and most of the states other than in south India, is “trying now to consolidate the upper caste vote”, especially the young that is drifting away from the party in the run up to the general elections in 2019.
These aspiring young had, with the mobilisation of the cadres of the RSS and a malignant hate campaign against minorities, largely propelled Mr Narendra Modi to the Prime Minister’s chair. There have been no jobs. On the other hand, the economic disasters unleashed by demonetisation, GST, the ban on cow slaughter and the refusal to ameliorate the sufferings of the farmers and agriculture sector, have taken the country on to the part of a looming disaster. The inflammatory neighbourhood leaves India with few friends in Asia. And the confrontation with Pakistan often seems to spiral out of hand.
Political observers had predicted right in 2014 that Mr Modi, and the Sangh, would fall back on divisive policies of stoking communal and caste confrontations to retain their base cadres. The premonitions became reality. Mr Modi’s presidential form of governance, many would call it dictatorial, left no political cushion of discussion or negotiations. A confrontation became inevitable and the Dalits were again the only victims, targets of the police which brutally crushed the protest and targets of upper caste goons who infiltrated the ranks, fomented arson and fired on the Dalits. This reporter was in TV studios when the popular anchor screamed that he had a film clip of a Dalit shooting at people. A Dalit fellow panellist immediately identified the man as Chauhan, with whom he was in college in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh.
Government, the media, the ruling party, and at the end of the day, even the Supreme court in a verbal taunt, sought to put the blame on the Dalits. But in another two days, the collective data was sufficient to indict the BJP of masterminding the violence, the government of creating the crisis leading to the Dalit angst and cadres of various Hindutva groups for much of the actual violence.
It all began with the Supreme Court “reading down” the law against atrocities on Scheduled Castes, or Dalits, and Scheduled Tribes.
The bench, in an oral observation when it rejected a stay on its ruling, said the people agitating had not understood its judgement. The court for the first time put curbs on what it accepted was rampant abuse of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act on an appeal filed by Dr Subhash Kashinath Mahajan who was serving as Maharashtra’s Director of Technical Education at the relevant time, quashing proceedings going on against him under the Act. The Bench of Justices Adarsh K Goel and Uday U Lalit framed the question on Nov 20 on Mahajan’s appeal as to “whether any unilateral allegation of mala fide can be ground to prosecute officers who dealt with the matter and if such allegation is falsely made.”
Its ruling came after hearing at length the Attorney General and senior advocate Amrendra Sharan as an amicus on the interpretation of the central Act. Mahajan was made an accused in the case registered by Karad city police station on the complaint by Bhaskar Karbhari Gaikwad, a store keeper in the Government Pharmacy College there who was later posted at the Government Distance Education Institute, Pune. The store keeper had lodged an FIR with the Karad police station on January 4, 2006 against Dr Satish Bhise and Dr Kishor Burade, his upper caste seniors, who had made an adverse entry in his annual confidential report that his integrity and character was not good.
Subaltern academic Kancha Ilaiah and others felt the court was putting the horse before the cart if it said the First Information Report under the act could not be filed against an upper caste person till after the police had investigated and prima facie found the allegations to be true. The truth or otherwise of the charge was the work of the court, not the police.
There were allegations the bench had been swayed by political sentiment, and the failure of the government to argue the matter properly to protect the Dalits. Upper caste groups, and the Media, took it as correcting a wrong done to them by previous governments trying to appease the Dalit vote bank. The court itself was righteous, blaming the violence on “vested interests”, saying the people had not even understood the judgement.
Let us get one thing out of the way. The Supreme Court is not infallible. It makes mistakes, sometimes very serious ones. But it also can correct itself. The correction may come years later; as it did in the case of a majority decision of the Supreme Court during the 1975 emergency when the constitution was suspended. On 25 June 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi invoked Article 359 and imposed a state of Emergency citing “internal disturbances”. Thousands were detained without trial as the government suspended all civil rights, armed itself with the power to arrest anyone without due procedure, and took away the only avenue of judicial relief one could have sought. A five-judge Constitution Bench was set up to examine whether Article 21 alone guarantees protection of life and personal liberty, does its suspension take away that right. Four of five judges – Justice Beg, Justice Chandrachud, Justice Bhagwati and Justice AN Ray – said, yes, Liberty is confined and controlled by law and is not an abstract or absolute freedom. The ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court recently in the celebrated Right to Privacy case . This bench had on it the son of Justice Chandrachud, Justice DY Chandrachud who said the early judgement was “seriously flawed.”
The Dalit issue is back in the Supreme Court. It remains to be seen if the bench will restore the pristine glory of the anti-atrocity act, and put to rest the political confrontations, and the ferment in the Dalit community. The Dalits hope they will again get the protection of the law as once did.
It is now quite clear that the government allowed matters to drift. It had almost a fortnight to politically sort out the issues while it waited ask the court to revise its ruling and restore the old law. It dithered. Political analysts see a design in it, that the government and the BJP wanted to put the onus on the court and not be held responsible if the law was diluted, and the Dalits became angry, as indeed they did.
The lot of the Dalits has not improved despite 15 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats being reserved for them, as also jobs in the government and public sector in the same proportion. Numbers have not led to political empowerment with legislators forced to toe the party line on all issues. Barring one or two MPs, the Supreme Court order saw no protest from Dalit MPs of the ruling party, or the Dalit ministers.
Violence, historic, seems to be increasing by the day, irrespective of the government in power in New Delhi and the state capitals.
Union Minister of State for Home Hans raj Gangaram Ahir recently told the Lok Sabha there 47,338 cases of crime against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes across the country in 2016. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) documented a total of 40,774 cases registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and other sections of law over alleged crimes against SCs and STs in the year 2016. Of these, charge-sheets were filed in 78.3% cases, and the conviction rate was 25.8%, he said in reply to a written question. The minister said in 2015, a total of 38,564 cases were registered for alleged crime against the SCs in which charge-sheets were filed in 73.8% cases and the conviction rate was 27.2%.
These dry figures do not reflect the situation in the ground where the police and administration are dominated by upper castes, most cases are not registered and others investigated in a cursory or shoddy manner. Witnesses are rare, and even those are coerced into withdrawing on their statements. The victim is often subject to further harassment, and often, terror. Suicides by bright young Dalits usually go unrecorded. It was Vemula’s death in Hyderabad that brought it to national attention.
Despite constitutional provisions, the scales remain tilted. Mr PS Krishnan, IAS, who decades ago as the secretary for welfare pioneered many schemes of epochal benefit to the Dalits and has since then closely monitored the perfidy of successive governments, recently exposed what can be called a conspiracy to keep Dalits out of the highest stream of academics. In a letter to Union Higher Education Secretary R Subrahmanyam, pointed out how they had been kept out this year from the doctorate and MPhil programmes in the Jawaharlal Nehru University. In the SC Category, only 1.3% seats were filled against 15% reservation. The admissions for other marginalised communities were equally dismal. This was attributed to the UGC’s Notification of 2016 which lays down that candidates should qualify in a written examination with at least 50% mark to be considered for viva-voce. The JNU has implemented this UGC Notification in 2017-18 without relaxation of marks in written examinations and is expected to do so in 2018-19 unless corrective measures are taken.
He pointed out the long-pending practice laid down by Government to relax marks for SCs and STs. To protect this practice, a Constitutional amendment inserting a new Proviso was enacted which amended Article 335. Though it is regarding recruitments for employment under the State, the same principle applies also to educational institutions.
As for the violence, the media took 48 hours to start reporting the actual course of events during the Bharat bandh. In Uttar Pradesh, ruled by BJP strongman Yogi Adityanath, the finger pointed to its own cadres. "In Muzaffarnagar, we have evidence to prove that anti-social elements with criminal cases against them got mixed with protesters and indulged in violence. They (these elements) did not belong to SC or ST communities,” Additional DGP (Law and Order) Anand Kumar told The Indian Express. “We do not rule out the possibility of a conspiracy behind violence across the state.” In Madhya Pradesh where 8 of the deaths took place, two policemen were among 5 booked.
(Published on 09th April 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 14 & 15)