The Supreme Court in its judgement on March 20 banned arbitrary and immediate arrest of individuals, in cases without credible evidence and prima facie malafide, under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act which prevents the atrocities against the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes.
The Bharat Bandh called by about 140 Dalit organizations the other day against the SC order turned violent which has shocked the Centre. The protests that took place in Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Gujarat and Delhi brought the lives of the people to a standstill. Besides, eleven people got killed in the violence, and buses, vehicles and trains were torched as well. The Dalit protests that took place on Monday were reminiscent of the violent agitations by the upper castes against implementing the Mandal Commission report during the tenure of former Prime Minister V P Singh. With the violence seemingly out of control, the Narendra Modi government has been compelled to file a review petition against the Supreme Court order.
A bench comprising Justices A K Goel and U U Lalit ruled that there should be no immediate arrest of those accused under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, that in the case of a public official accused under the law, prior information has to be obtained by a higher authority who has to provide written reasons for the arrest to be made and that the arrest should be made only after a preliminary investigation by an official with rank no less than the Deputy Superintendent of police. With this, the Dalit organizations naturally believe that this would defang the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. This is what led to the raging protests. With Parliament elections due next year, the central government has filed a review petition in the Supreme Court which might have been on realizing that provoking the Dalits who make up 18 crores of the country’s population, may lead to a huge setback. The review petition points out that the apex court overlooked the established principles in the law and certain situations, and contends that the March 20 judgement could give rise to far-reaching consequences and that the weakening of the law would lead to violation of rights. The situations missed by the Supreme Court as cited in the review petition include the delay in submitting the FIR, defection by by the witness or the complainants and the inadequate presentation of the case in the court.
It may be argued that Opposition parties including the Congress announced their support for the protests as a political exploitation. However, given the relevance of the factors cited by the government in the review petition, the cardinal question is as to why there was so much delay over seeking a review of the court order. It might be after seeing an increase in the complaints of abuse against the Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes and the rampant misuse of the law that the apex court got convinced that vigilance should be maintained in implementing the Act. It cannot be denied that the law for prevention of atrocities against Dalits is being misused like all other laws. Given that casteism is a never-ending curse of the Indian society, fake cases may be charged against innocents with the police and reach the courts due to hatred and vengeance. Such incidents occur in cases of sexual harassment against women as well. But the situation in which a law, that is a source of relief for the weak, the oppressed and those denied justice, is weakened is more dangerous. Dalits are those hapless poor who are unable to file a complaint with the police or seek the help of a lawyer.
The overall conditions prevailing in the country is such that winning justice is really hard. For those without financial capacity or strings to pull, things have come to such a pass that they have to silently bear with even such atrocities as murder and rape. To add insult to injury, it has come to a stage that if the culprits are government functionaries, the approval of appointing authority is also required to file a case. Not only that, in cases requiring arrest, an enquiry should be conducted by an official not below the rank of deputy police superintendent. Will any of these work for scheduled castes and adivasis? Thus the fallout of the court verdict is that the 1989 law, which was enacted for their protection, becomes in effect toothless for them. In the ultimate analysis, the high caste psyche of India is afflicted even after seven decades of independence. The latest change of regime has only doubled that. And it cannot be seen as merely accidental that not a single judge of the Supreme Court is a Dalit. And on the review petition of the Central government, the court has refused to stay the judgment. That being so, this state of affairs cannot be ended except through stiff resistance of all sections of the people being denied justice.