Mumbai: Large sections of people from the other backward classes (OBCs) and upper castes have revolted against the amended Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, alleging that the Act is being misused.
This has dealt a blow to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign to win the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections for the fourth consecutive time in November.
People took to the streets on 3 and 4 September across central and northern Madhya Pradesh, in districts such as Gwalior, Morena, Shivpuri, and Chambal, protesting the misuse of the Act against the OBCs and upper castes. The district administration in Gwalior imposed Section 144 on 3 September, which will be effective till 6 September.
Madhya Pradesh health minister Rustam Singh and urban development minister Maya Singh faced protests in Morena and Gwalior. At least three other ministers, including Yashodhara Raje, put off their official visits to some of these districts in view of the demonstrations.
In Mandsaur, upper castes and OBCs organized a rally, shouting slogans against the SC/ST Act and also against legislators and members of Parliament (MPs) who did not raise their voice against its alleged misuse. The rallyists also protested the continuance of reservations for certain castes. Protests in other parts of the state demanded for quota for the economically backward upper castes.
The protests come in the wake of the Narendra Modi government at the centre passing an amendment in August, supported by all political parties, to effectively restore the SC/ST Act. The amendment follows a 20 March Supreme Court ruling, which put in safeguards against the immediate arrest of a person against whom an offence under the Act was lodged.
The Supreme Court also noted that the Act had been widely misused in the last three decades since it was passed. This enraged sections of the SC/ST population, as well as political parties, claiming to represent them.
The Modi government brought in the amendment effectively nullifying the SC order, worried over the likely SC/ST backlash and the loss of allies.
Madhya Pradesh BJP spokesperson Hitesh Bajpai acknowledged the protests, but pointed out that this was not the first time that the demand for quota was being made by upper castes.
“This demand has been made in the past, but it assumes different colours during election time. As regards the protest against the SC/ST Act, this issue needs to be addressed by both sides using their discretion and good sense. An angry protest is not a solution," Bajpai told Mint.
The BJP leader said the party was ready for a dialogue to address the concerns of both the SC/ST sections and the upper castes and OBCs. “The SC/ST Act was enacted for those people who are at the receiving end of caste-based atrocities and it must stay with its full powers till the last village in India is free of this scourge. In urban parts, there could be different interpretations of the Act and some of those are cosmetic. However, the Act is essential in rural parts. That is why our government passed the amendment against its dilution," said Bajpai.
A Madhya Pradesh Congress leader, who did not want to be named, said the party was in a “tight spot" over the issue. However, he said that the BJP was likely to be impacted more as it was ruling both in the state and at the Centre. “We supported the amendment in Parliament and can’t take a different position in Madhya Pradesh now. Also, if we openly support the protests against the Act, we run the risk of losing support of the SC/STs."
SCs account for 15.51% of Madhya Pradesh’s population, according to the 2011 census. STs have a 18.46% share. In the 230-member Madhya Pradesh assembly, 35 seats are reserved for SC candidates and 47 for STs.