Subhas Chandra Pattanayak
For the first time, the Indian Republic witnessed that the tortured victims of caste supremacism have reached the last limit of tolerance and if the judiciary takes them for granted, reaction shall be fearsome. Dalits’ acrid agitation on 2nd April against alleged dilution of SC & ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act ,1989 by the Supreme Court in its 20th March verdict, should be read as a warning against caste apartheid they are being constantly subjected to in India.
It is a shame that in the Republic of India, the members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, whose massive contribution to martyrdom has brought independence to our country on which the Republic stands, are treated as sub-humans and are being forced to live under the mercy of upper-caste chauvinists.
When the 1989 Act was framed, they were being forced by upper-caste people to live like animals The atrocities they were being subjected to were enumerated though incompletely, in the Act itself, that provided for imprisonment and fine to whosoever of the non-SC and non-ST segment,
1. forces a member of a Scheduled Castes or a Scheduled Tribes to drink or eat any inedible or obnoxious substance;
2. Acts with intent to cause injury, insult or annoyance to any member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe by dumping excreta, waste matter, carcasses or any other obnoxious substance in his premises or neighborhood;
3. Forcibly removes clothes from the person of a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or parades him naked or with painted face or body or commits any similar act which is derogatory to human dignity;
4. Wrongfully occupies or cultivates any land owned by, or allotted to, or notified by any competent authority to be allotted to, a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or gets the land allotted to him transferred;
5. Wrongfully dispossesses a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe from his land or premises or interferes with the enjoyment of his right over any land, premises or water;
6. Compels or entices a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe to do ‘begar’ or other similar forms of forced or bonded labour other than compulsory service for public purposes imposed by Government;
7. Forces or intimidates a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe not to vote or to vote a particular candidate or to vote in a manner other than that provided by law;
8. Institutes false, malicious or vexatious suit or criminal or other legal proceedings against a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe;
9. Gives any false or frivolous information to any public servant and thereby causes such public servant to use his lawful power to the injury or annoyance of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe;
10. Intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view;
11. Assaults or uses forces to any woman belonging to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe with intent to dishonor or outrage her modesty;
12. Being in a position to dominate the will of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe and uses that position to exploit the sexually to which she would not have otherwise agreed;
13. Corrupts or fouls the water of any spring, reservoir or any other source ordinarily used by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes so as to render it less fit for the purpose for which it is ordinarily used;
14. Denies a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe any customary right of passage to a place of public resort or obstructs such member so as to prevent him from using or having access to a place of public resort to which other members of public or any section thereof have a right to use or access to;
15. Forces or causes a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe to leave his house, village or other place of residence”
Had there been no atrocities, there would never have been this law.
Despite the law, upper-caste people have not changed their minds and mentality, be they private or Police, mandarins or ministers, legislators or jurists. Taking this reality into mind, the 2013 Amendment Bill brought in through an Ordinance had admitted in its Objects and Reasons that,
procedural hurdles such as non-registration of cases, procedural delays in investigation, arrests and filing of charge-sheets and delays in trial and low conviction rate on account of which inspire of deterrent provisions, atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes continues as disturbing level which necessitates the amendment in the Act.
But the Bill had to lapse in 2014 as the Ordinance could not be replaced in parliament. Atrocities continued more brutally. The 2015 Amendment was, therefore , made to include new definitions, new offenses, re-phrasing of existing sections and expanding of the scope of presumptions while providing for Institutional strengthening, establishing rights of victims and witnesses, strengthening preventive measures and a new section on Appeals. The Amendment was enforced with effect from 26.1.2016.
The key features of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, are:
(1) New offences of atrocities like tonsuring of head, moustache, or similar acts which are derogatory to the dignity of members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, garlanding with chappals, denying access to irrigation facilities or forest rights , dispose or carry human or animal carcasses, or to dig graves, using or permitting manual scavenging, dedicating a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe women as devadasi, abusing in caste name, perpetrating witchcraft atrocities, imposing social or economic boycott, preventing Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes candidates from filing of nomination to contest elections, hurting a Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes woman by removing her garments, forcing a member of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe to leave house , village or residence, defiling objects sacred to members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe, touching or using words, acts or gestures of a sexual nature against members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe.
(2) Addition of certain IPC offences like hurt, grievous hurt, intimidation, kidnapping etc., attracting less than ten years of imprisonment, committed against members of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe, as offences punishable under the PoA Act. Presently, only those offences listed in IPC as attracting punishment of 10 years or more and committed on members of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe are accepted as offences falling under the PoA Act.
(3) Establishment of Exclusive Special Courts and specification of Exclusive Special Public Prosecutors also, to exclusively try the offenses under the PoA Act to enable speedy and expeditious disposal of cases.
(4) Power of Special Courts and Exclusive Special Courts, to take direct cognizance of offense and as far as possible, completion of trial of the case within two months, from the date of filing of the charge sheet.
(5) Addition of chapter on the ‘Rights of Victims and Witnesses’.
(6) Defining clearly the term ‘willful negligence’ of public servants at all levels, starting from the registration of complaint, and covering aspects of dereliction of duty under this Act.
(7) Addition of presumption to the offenses –If the accused was acquainted with the victim or his family, the court will presume that the accused was aware of the caste or tribal identity of the victim unless proved otherwise.
DESPITE all such legal provisions, the SC and ST population is facing atrocities that Courts have failed to stop. From the Annual Report, 2016-17 published by the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Govt. of India, it transpires that in 2015, out of 15638 cases decided by Courts , 11024 cases resulted in acquittals. This means, the prosecuting machinations are so rampant against the victims of atrocities that despite charge-sheets framed on irrefutable evidences on the spot, 11024 cases our of 15638 cases had to end with rewards of acquittals to the tormentors in the courts in 2015. That, this year, according the above mentioned official report, 495 cases were withdrawn, is enough for us to assume that the poor victims were so much frightened that they had no other way than withdrawing their cases.
In the circumstances, requiring a poor victim of atrocities to make out a prima facie case as a prerequisite to prosecution under the POA Act, may lead to nullification of the purpose of the Act.It may bring in not only legal but also political upheavals that India would best desire to avoid.
In order to know where the shoe pinches, the Supreme Court should institute an inquiry into why 11024 cases out of 15638 cases of atrocities lodged by SC and ST population against their tormentors failed in 2015 and why as many as 495 cases were withdrawn. If the Supreme Court is really for supremacy of the Constitution, the caste system must immediately be quashed and every privilege claimed and enjoyed by the name of any caste be declared unconstitutional and extinguished. Till then, under no pretense, the SC & ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act should be interfered with.