One reason the police and revenue officials assign for the ever-rising incidence of violence against Dalits and tribal folk is the ‘inadequacy’ of existing laws against atrocities. This is far from true. In fact, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 is a potent law. It provides for punishing not only the perpetrators of violence, but also the officials, including the district collector in certain circumstances, when they refuse to enforce the Act the way they should. So the reason for the failure to bring the culprits to book seems to lie elsewhere.
With the Act completing 20 years of its existence, the problem is up for public debate. Advocates, rights activists, leaders of political parties, and others are discussing the various aspects of the problem. Five years after the Constitution banned the practice of “untouchability” under Article 17, the first relevant legislation, the Untouchability Offences Act 1955, was put in place. The Act also came to be known as the Temple Untouchability Act, because denial of entry into temples was the single most onerous aspect of untouchability. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, which prescribed punishment for preaching and practising untouchability, is a central Act applicable to the whole of India. Under this, “civil rights” meant “any right accruing to a person by reason of the abolition of ‘untouchability’ by Article 17 of the Constitution.” This was the only legislation that dealt with civil rights, with amendments bringing many other human rights under its purview over the years.
An interesting history
The introduction of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act, 1989 has an interesting history. The Protection of Civil Rights Act came up for review in the late 1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi virtually signalled the end of the Emergency by opting for fresh elections to the Lok Sabha. She suffered a humiliating defeat and the Janata government took charge. It was perhaps the lowest point in Mrs Gandhi’s political career. Studies by pollsters and discussions with senior party leaders identified the loss of traditional Dalit votes to the Congress as a major factor in the party’s crushing defeat.
The massacre of 12 Dalit workers by a group of ‘upper caste’ landowners gave Mrs Gandhi an opportunity to make amends for her neglect of the problems of Dalits, who were believed to be her unfailing supporters. Discussions with party workers gave her the impression that all the existing Acts had failed to ensure the abolition of untouchability and protect Dalits from ‘upper-caste’ violence. The urgency of bringing in more powerful laws became apparent. It took about eight years for the Congress, now under Rajiv Gandhi, to make this realisation a reality. Another major pro-Dalit contribution by Mrs Gandhi was the Special Component Plan (now renamed as the Scheduled Castes Sub Plan); it provided for allotment by Ministries at the centre and the States of separate funds for the benefit of Dalits every year in proportion to their share in the population. There were complaints that the scheme was not properly implemented for several years in many States and at the centre. The scheme has, however, been in operation in recent years.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act, 1989, which covers many forms of atrocity, raised high hopes among Dalits. Had it been properly implemented, it could have made a significant difference on the ground. Besides providing for severe punishment for atrocities against Dalits, the Act fixes the quantum of compensation to be paid, depending upon the nature of the atrocity and the nature of the injury and the extent of loss to the affected. Any failure of the police and officials to take suitable action would also attract punishment. Yet sincerity in implementing the Act has been conspicuously absent.
It is well known that in most cases, when the affected Dalits go to the police, First Information Reports (FIR), are registered not under the S.C. and S.T. Act but under the ordinary laws, which weakens any chance of bringing the criminals to justice. One well-identified reason for the indifference of policemen is that they are overwhelmingly non-Dalits. Apart from that, in many cases, officialdom is not free from caste bias. True, the 1989 Act does not cover certain forms of atrocity such as social boycott or denial of social benefits or economic offences such as denial of employment. But the basic fault lies not in the legislation but in the dominant values in the social system, which are shared by the police and officialdom at large.
There is a vital challenge here for socially sensitive journalism. The news media must go beyond covering atrocities, various forms of violence, against the socially oppressed. They must pro-actively report and analyse the chronic and deep-seated realities of this oppression as a daily phenomenon — so that the atrocities are located in proper social context and the need for thoroughly cleansing society of the curse of ‘untouchability’ and kindred social evils is highlighted. Only then can the media play their part as agents of social justice and progressive social change.