Mumbai: Safeguards instituted by the Supreme Court on 20 March to check the misuse of a law to prevent atrocities against scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST) could widen the caste fault lines in Maharashtra, where Maratha organizations have been demanding an amendment to the law to prevent such misuse.

On 2 April, a host of Dalit organizations, supported by political parties which champion the Dalit cause, will observe a Bharat bandh to demand that the Union government file a review petition against the apex court ruling on the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Members of some of these Dalit organizations told Mint that the bandh would take place despite the Union government’s decision on 30 March to file a review petition.

Union minister for social justice and empowerment Thawarchand Gehlot last week announced that the government would soon file a review petition and urged people to withdraw protest calls. Meanwhile, office bearers of the Maratha Kranti Morcha, an umbrella body of Maratha organizations, plan to meet this week to formulate a strategy if the centre seeks a review of the Supreme Court ruling.

The anti-atrocities act was introduced in 1989 to provide SC and ST sections a legal recourse against caste-based discrimination, abuse, assault, and other atrocities. However, the apex court, hearing a petition filed by Subhash Mahajan, former director of technical education, Maharashtra, against a Bombay high court order rejecting his plea to quash an FIR filed by Bhaskar Gaikwad, store-keeper in the department of technical education, noted that there were “instances of abuse" of the act by “vested interests". The Supreme Court quashed the case against Mahajan noting the “abuse" of the act in nearly three decades of its existence. The apex court also laid down safeguards including anticipatory bail and preliminary inquiry before registering a case.

The Supreme Court ruling could have social and political repercussions in Maharashtra, coming in the backdrop of a demand by Maratha organizations to amend the law to stop its abuse against non-SC/ST sections. 

Sukhadeo Thorat, economist, scholar of Dalit issues, and distinguished professor at Pune’s Savitribai Phule University, told Mint that the Supreme Court order was “fundamentally wrong" and deserved to be challenged. Thorat, who has just completed a book on the anti-atrocities act, said his research had showed that merely 8-9% of the total cases filed under the act were based on weak evidence. “More than 90% of the cases are filed on the basis of solid evidence and this is based on government’s own findings after complaints of abuse were made. There is definitely some abuse but not on the scale that the Supreme Court has said," Thorat said. He held the government guilty of not taking a pro-active position in the Supreme Court when the ruling was given but conceded that striking a balance between protecting the spirit of the Act and placating those against a review petition was an “exercise in political tight-rope walking" for the government. Acknowledging that the Supreme Court order and the larger issue of the implementation of the Act could widen the social divides in Maharashtra, Thorat, however, said Maharashtra should revive its progressive and reformist traditions to establish harmony among all castes. 

Kishore Gajbiye, member of SC/ST atrocity committee and former IAS officer, said the committee had given the government “an ultimatum of 15 days to file a review petition against the Supreme Court order." “If the government does not file the review petition within 15 days from 20 March, we will file it. If the government files it, we will file an intervention application to keep watch on the government submission before the court," Gajbiye said. Santosh Sanjkar, another member of this committee, said a Bharat bandh would be observed on 2 April to put pressure on the government to seek a review. 

Virendra Pawar, Mumbai co-ordinator of Maratha Kranti Morcha said the Supreme Court order had come in response to a specific case. “It is not that the government has accepted our demand to pass legislation or amend the Act to ensure that its misuse is stopped and incorporate a provision to punish those who misuse it. The court has given the ruling in a specific case, but we still welcome it. The Supreme Court has said what we have been saying all along," Pawar said.

But he added that he was sure that the centre would file a review petition against the order. “We will meet next week in Mumbai to decide our strategy if a review is filed," Pawar said. He said it was the Congress party that had opposed the Supreme Court order and asked the government to file a review petition. “By doing that, Congress has invited the wrath of Maratha and OBC communities," Pawar said.

Bhaskar Gaikwad, the original complainant in the case before the Supreme Court , said the court order had killed the soul of the anti-atrocity Act. “I do not know if the government is challenging the order, but I am going to file a review petition myself next week," Gaikwad said.