Notwithstanding the elevation of Dalits to high public offices, we find reports of atrocities against them appearing in the media with alarming frequency. They point to the continuing social injustice in a system that perpetrates what is perhaps the worst form of discrimination against a group of people born into a community or caste. The Constitution has abolished untouchability under Article 17 and forbids its practice in any form.

The Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 defines civil rights as the rights accruing to a person by reason of the abolition of untouchability. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocity) Act gave more teeth to the law-enforcing agencies to bring to book those who humiliate and dishonour Dalit women. Yet we come across rampant casteism and are witness to its practice in various forms in our day-to-day lives.

Attitudinal change

For caste discrimination and atrocities to end, society needs to change its attitude towards Dalits. But it is easier said than done in a society where caste plays an important role.

The empowerment of Dalits by various means can go a long way in establishing a casteless society but again how soon this can happen in a land mired in poverty, illiteracy and backwardness is a million dollar question. The issue that can be addressed at the micro level is the role of the police in helping to end caste-based atrocities. In any incident of violence against Dalits, the police are blamed for inaction. It is alleged that they take sides with the members of the ‘upper’ caste and intimidate Dalits into silence.

They are accused of refusing to file FIRs, going slow on the investigation, booking the accused under Sections that do not attract tough sentences and, in many cases, of looking the other way as village panchayats and ‘elders’ broker some kind of understanding to appease (read threaten) the Dalits.

All this, despite the fact that as many as 18 government agencies are involved in educating Dalits. The Department of Higher Education, the Municipal Administration and Water Supplies, the Rural Development and the Panchayati Raj, in particular, have played a significant role in ameliorating the problems of Dalits in Tamil Nadu.

Role of the police

Can the police prevent instances of caste discrimination? They can ensure protection but can they bring about the desired change in the thinking of people?

The police can work wonders but the beginning will have to be made at a micro level. Policemen in their initial levels of recruitment are posted to villages and towns they are familiar with. They are aware of the social milieu of the region and their performance is closely monitored. Their training includes sensitisation to the weaker sections.

It would be worthwhile to include in their syllabus field trips to districts and villages where caste tensions have been successfully tackled. They can talk to police officers, administration officials, representatives of NGOs, grass root workers and the locals to learn more about the issue.

Policemen should learn more about Dalits — the pockets in which they live, their annual festivals, rituals, anniversaries of leaders and so on, so that they can develop a sense of participation, on the one hand, and anticipate areas of social tensions, on the other. Even a fiery speech or a street play can lead to caste tensions.

Using force after a law and order situation develops is one thing. But expanding the scope of policing to prevent situations from developing is a challenge. The human aspect of law-enforcement is, by far, the most paying in terms of returns.

Treating Dalits with warmth when they come to a police station, giving them a patient hearing, redressing their grievances at the earliest, conducting sports meets and cultural activities where the Dalit youth can mingle with others, guiding them to seek gainful employment, educating them on their rights and the special laws that seek to protect them and, above all, making a constant effort to change the mindset of people — by persuasion, education and, when necessary, force — to take Dalits along can go a long way in ensuring that the atrocities against them come to an end.

(The writer is Inspector- General of Police, Human Rights and Social Justice, Tamil Nadu, Chennai)

More In: Open Page | Opinion