It is heartening that last week’s column, “An act with teeth, but of no use in protecting the weak,” on the law against atrocities on Dalits has received a good response from a cross section of readers. Most of them agree that the Act is not being properly used in protecting Dalits from atrocities and ensuring justice to the victims. A few readers have expressed the view that the indifference or lack of will of the police and the administration alone cannot be blamed for the ineffective enforcement of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. They contend that while virtually all political parties claim they have concern for Dalits, not all are serious in their expression of support. This becomes clear particularly when Dalits are in deep distress. And without pro-active pressure from political parties, neither the police nor officialdom can be moved to act.

“Dalit organisations,” says N.R. Satyamurty of Cuddalore, “should disown the parties which do not show real interest in them. They should be able to identify parties which pay only lip service to their cause.” He adds: “At the same time, there are instances when Dalits misuse the Prevention of Atrocities Act and harm innocent OCs [people from Other Castes] when they face disputes with them over other matters.” And suggests: “Curbing the misuse of the Act will go a long way in creating a conducive atmosphere.”

Instances of alleged misuse

J.P. Reddy of Nalgonda, in a lengthy e-mail message, suggests: “The need of the hour is the strict and proper implementation of this Act in letter and spirit to benefit all those who are victimised on caste basis and harassed physically and mentally ….” He wants the police to investigate the complaints with all sincerity and in detail, so that there is no abuse of the Act. He cites two incidents of alleged misuse of the Act. The first relates to a case filed under the Atrocities Act by a Deputy Superintendent of Police against a woman Deputy Inspector General of Police who reprimanded the DSP for his alleged administrative lapses as part of a regular exercise of her power. The matter is now before the Andhra Pradesh High Court. The second is a complaint filed by Dalits against a caste Hindu Chief Editor of a Telugu daily that allegedly published adverse comments against some Dalit leaders in a front-page editorial of the paper. Provoked by the editorial comments, a group of Dalits stormed the newspaper’s office and assaulted some employees. The employees hit back and also slapped an “effigy” of Dalits. Dalits have lodged a complaint to the authorities under the Atrocities Act. In both the cases, Mr. Reddy contends, the Act has been abused.

As for the criticism that there has been abuse of the Act, there can be no two opinions. Any legislation intended to serve a good purpose can be abused. This cannot be encouraged on any account. One way of preventing abuse could be a more thorough investigation of the complaint. There is, however, absolutely no case for removing the Act from the statute book or diluting its provisions, as some sections of people have been demanding in certain parts of the country. In several cases, the police themselves are reported to be instrumental in abusing the Act. There have been instances of the police misusing the Act to foist cases against particular non-Dalits who support the Dalit cause. A district secretary of a party, a non-Dalit, who used to lead agitations against atrocities on Dalits was booked under the Act, by allegedly forcing a Dalit to complain against him. A prominent woman advocate, also a non-Dalit, was charge-sheeted under the Act. Both proved their innocence in court by showing up the complaints to be false and obtained under duress.

But such instances are few and far between. The real problem with implementation of the Atrocities Act is that the police are generally unwilling to file a criminal case against those who really commit offences under the Act. They have their own ways of neutralising the legislation. For example, when the affected Dalits give a list of non-Dalits who assaulted them, the police have been known to compel them to include one or two Dalits in the list. Alternatively, they get the non-Dalits to give counter-petitions alleging an assault on them. This helps the law and order machinery to treat the case as ‘group clashes’ or ‘a mere law and order problem’ and to close the file after some ‘peace meetings.’ Usually, there is some kind of socio-political pressure on the police to resort to this course.

“Walls in minds”

It will be appropriate to cite here some observations made by P.S. Krishnan, a former Union Government Secretary and a well-known writer on social justice, in a recent article in Frontline (“Walls in minds,” December 4, 2009: “The benefits of this basically and conceptually sound Act have not fully, or even largely, reached the S.Cs and S.Ts on account of deficiencies in the Act and in various aspects of its implementation.” Mr. Krishnan’s analysis of annual reports on the Act covering the period from 1999 to 2003 shows that only 50 to 60 per cent of the cases reported to the police lead to charge-sheets; and only eight to 21 per cent of the cases in which charge sheets are filed go on to the trial stage. As for convictions, they happen in only 11 to 13 per cent of the cases that are tried. And finally: “The percentage of convictions is only 1 to 2 per cent when calculated against all cases that reach the court.”

Three readers, Henry Thiagaraj and R. Ramakrishnan, both from Chennai, and Gopal Raju, have endorsed my appeal to the media to “proactively report and analyse the chronic and deep-seated realities of this oppression [of Dalits] as a daily phenomenon.” Mr. Ramakrishnan wants those in public life, including mediapersons, to shed the caste tags in their name as a first step.