Preventing Dalits and tribespeople from entering places of worship will be made a punishable offence under legal changes proposed by the National Advisory Council (NAC), which sets the social policy for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
Obstructing members of such groups from using community resources will also be made an offence under amendments proposed by the NAC, which is headed by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and focuses on the rights of disadvantaged sections of society.
The NAC has also recommended setting up dedicated special courts and time-bound trials for such offences under the proposed changes to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Such proposals could reinforce the Congress’s support among Dalits and tribespeople in a year the country faces a raft of state polls leading up to general elections in 2014. The UPA will be seeking a third consecutive term in office in the next elections after winning power in 2004 and 2009 on a pro-poor, pro-rural platform.
The NAC has prepared the draft recommendations for amending the 24-year-old legislation after consulting various ministries and experts and invited more suggestions from the public.
A week after the NAC prepared its recommendations, the ministry of social justice and empowerment held a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the proposed amendments.
“Despite several measures taken and earnest efforts made, it is ironical that the offences of atrocities against members of the SCs (scheduled castes) and the STs (scheduled tribes) continue unabated,” Kumari Selja, minister of social justice and empowerment, was quoted saying at the meeting according to a release by the Press Information Bureau.
The UPA has “attached a very high priority” to effective implementation of the Act, she said.
The NAC, in the report, said atrocities against Dalits and tribespeople continue “unabated and legal justice remains out of reach for majority of victims” because of poor implementation of the Act. Conviction rates remain low and many forms of atrocities, despite being documented, are not covered by the Act.
“Victims and witnesses confront hurdles at every stage of the legal process—from registration, investigation and chargesheeting to the trial stage,” the panel said.
The 11-member panel has recommended that “obstructing the use of common property resources, causing physical harm or death on the allegation of practising witchcraft, imposing social or economic boycott, preventing entry to any place of public worship and abetment” should be made offences under the act.
The proposed amendments suggest that “parading a person naked or semi-naked, forcible tonsuring of head, removal of moustache or garlanding with footwear should be additionally included as offences...”
A 2010 report by the ministry of social justice and empowerment, which contains the latest available official data, said 38,449 cases of atrocities on SCs and STs were registered in 2010 under the Act by the police, and only 33.7% cases had ended in convictions.
According to 2011 census data, scheduled castes form 16.2% of India’s total population and scheduled tribes make up 8.2%.
While Rajasthan, a Congress-ruled state, heads the list of the number of cases of atrocities against both scheduled castes and tribes in 2010, Uttar Pradesh, then ruled by the pro-Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mayawati, topped the list of cases against SCs. Five states—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh—account for around 70% of registered atrocities against Dalits in India.
The draft recommendations suggested that the provision in the law that covers dispossession of SC/ST members from their land should be amended to include destruction of crops or taking away of produce belonging to them as an offence.
It also proposed expanding the scope of a provision on bonded labour to cover forcing members of these communities to remove carcasses or dig graves and designating their women as so-called Devdasis, a practice under which women are married off to deities and subjected to cruelty.
If the proposals become a law, pressurizing SC/ST candidates to withdraw their nominations in election and preventing them from holding elected posts and blocking them from doing their duties would be criminal acts.
“It is recommended that there should be new sections or sub-sections covering caste-based abuse and humiliation, harassment, hate speech, or disfigurement or defiling of symbols held sacred by the community, including statues and images,” the NAC said.
The council has also made a case for enhanced compensation adjusted annually to inflation and released expeditiously.
Experts are divided over the political impact of the recommendations.
B.G. Verghese, a political analyst and visiting professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said the recommendations were significant, downplaying their timing ahead of elections. “It is quite true that despite the existing Act, atrocities continue to take place. The NAC’s recommendation is a significant move and it has thrown up the issue for debate,” he said.
Mumbai-based political analyst Jai Mrug said the recommendations were in the nature of “campaign chapters and talking points” for the ruling Congress in its preparation for the 2014 general elections.
“The underlying assumption is that while in the previous elections (2009), the poor and the underprivileged stood by them, now it is about bringing more of them under the Congress fold,” Mrug said.