Why Dalits are wary of a diluted Atrocities Act
The growing crimes against the community, low conviction rates, and a sense of disenchantment with NDA may all be contributing to Dalit anger
New Delhi: Less than four months after a Bharat Bandh called by Dalit groups to protest against the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act claimed nine lives across the country, another such protest is being planned on 9 August to press for the reinstatement of the stringent provisions of the Act which were struck down by the Supreme Court.
One of the constituent parties of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has warned the government of aggressive protests on 9 August unless an ordinance is promulgated to supersede the court ruling on the Act.
What explains the restiveness among Dalit groups? The growing crimes against Dalits, low conviction rates, and a sense of disenchantment with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA regime may all be contributing to Dalit anger, keeping Dalit politics on the boil, a Mint analysis suggests.
Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that the rate of crimes against Dalits has been rising over time. In 2016, an estimated 214 incidents of crimes against Scheduled Castes (SCs) were reported per million SC population, up from 207 in the previous year, NCRB data shows.
Till 2015, NCRB provided data on crimes recorded under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act as well as overall data on crimes against SCs or Dalits, which included crimes registered under other provisions.
However, from 2016 onwards, this overall figure has not been provided. The estimate for 2016 has been generated based on the ratio of PoA/non-PoA crimes in previous years. Also, as pointed out in an earlier Plain Facts column, the population projections used by NCRB to calculate crime rates are not consistent over time. Hence, they have been re-estimated for the analysis using census 2001 and 2011 figures. Given the nature of such crimes, there is likely to be under-reporting that may affect the crime rates across years.
Hence, we also examined the rate of murders of Dalits, which are more unlikely to go unreported. The murder rate, too, shows an increase since 2012.
Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan reported the highest rate of Dalit murders in 2016. Some of these states, such as Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, have been witness to large-scale protests by Dalit youth over the past couple of years in response to Dalit atrocities. The increase in crimes against Dalits in recent years has followed a sharp plunge in conviction rates for such crimes, NCRB data shows, suggesting that rising impunity could be one factor driving such violence.
While the conviction rate of overall Indian Penal Code (IPC) crimes has increased over the last decade, the conviction rate of crimes against Dalits has declined.
Less than one-third of cases of crimes against Dalits tried by courts in 2015 faced convictions.
Other caste groups such as the Marathas in Maharashtra have been arguing that the plunge in convictions in such cases is because of a rise in false cases.
But there is very little evidence to back such a claim. The NCRB data shows that the share of false cases in completed trials has declined 3 percentage points since 2012 to 20% in 2015.
According to some lawyers, the stringent provisions of the PoA Act which were struck down by the Supreme Court lend themselves to abuse. Such stringent provisions in another Act, Section 498A—which was enacted to protect victims of dowry cases—have also been struck down because of the potential for abuse, said S.S. Naganand, senior advocate and senior partner, JustLaw, in Bengaluru.
However, in response to multiple petitions from women’s groups on this issue, the Supreme Court has decided to revisit the Section 498A provisions once again.
Dalit activists argue that the courts and India’s ruling class need to consider the disadvantageous position of Dalits in Indian society while examining the issue.
While there may be a few instances of abuse of the law, in a majority of cases the police are extremely reluctant to invoke the provisions of the Atrocities Act, or investigate cases of atrocities with due diligence, said Pradip More, deputy director at the non-governmental organisation Dalit Foundation.
Often, judges, too, shy away from invoking the provisions of the Act. For instance, in the infamous Khairlanji killings— where upper caste men killed four members of a Dalit family in Maharashtra—both the trial court and Bombay high court refused to invoke the PoA Act.
Ultimately, it is the Dalit memory of being wronged throughout the history of Indian civilization that keeps the flame of Dalit protests alive.
What may have added fuel to the fire is a sense of disappointment among Dalit voters who voted for the Narendra Modi-led BJP in large numbers in 2014.
The perceived inability to protect Dalit interests and to save Dalit lives may have fuelled discontent among Dalit youth, as an earlier Plain Facts column by political scientists Sanjay Kumar and Pranav Gupta argued.
Figures from successive rounds of the Mood of the Nation Survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS suggests that Dalit support for the BJP-led Union government has been declining since mid-2017 even as Dalit protests have been growing.
With the Congress party training its guns on the government on the issue of Dalit atrocities, the Bharatiya Janata Party has a tough challenge on its hands.
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