Reservation for higher castes may worsen the culture of impunity around caste-related crimes

For Sachin Gharu and two of his friends, 2013 New Year’s Day was their last. On that day Sachin was beheaded; the killers had chopped off his limbs as well. His girlfriend’s name, tattooed across his chest, was what eventually helped in identifying his body, mutilated beyond recognition. The three young men belonged to the Mehtar or Valmiki community and were killed because Sachin was in love with a girl from the Darandale family who belonged to the Maratha caste. No one knew of their deaths and had it not been for the persistence of an Army jawan named Pankaj Thanwar, whose brother Sandip was killed along with Sachin, the crime would not have come to light a month later.

For the second time in two years, members of the Scheduled Castes (SC) have been butchered in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. Death visited three members of the Jadhav family in an equally brutal manner in Javkhede Khalasa in Pathardi taluka on the night of October 20. Sanjay Jadhav, his wife, and son Sunil, a student in Mumbai, were killed and their mutilated limbs scattered around a field and a well. While the police are conducting investigations, no arrests have been made yet. There are whispers that this is a case of honour killing and that one of the Jadhav men was having an affair with a neighbour from an upper caste family. The police have been allowed to conduct polygraph tests on some of the suspects in the case but no names are being revealed as yet.

Sachin, Sandip and Rahul, all in their twenties, were murdered after being called to clean a septic tank at Popat Darandale’s house in Sonai village. Their suspected assailants who include Darandale, his brothers and Navgire, who were arrested later, claimed that they died accidentally. The police who started promisingly by suspecting that six-foot men don’t suddenly fall into septic tanks, later delayed registering the case. Even then, it was under the Indian Penal Code and not under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which was added later. The case was handed over to the CID and the trial started only this week in a Nashik court, 23 months after the crime was committed.

Crimes against members of the SCs are not new in Maharashtra. In September 2006, Khairlanji, a small village in Bhandara, saw a frenzied mob kill four members of the Bhotmange family. They were dragged out of their modest home by villagers and killed in the most barbaric manner, unprecedented in the State. Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, the lone survivor of that incident, saw his wife, daughter and two sons being hacked to death. There were also rumours then that there was an illicit affair, perhaps to obscure what was clearly a case of caste-related violence. An ad hoc sessions court completed the trial but did not think it merited the application of the Atrocities Act. While the six accused were first sentenced to death and two others to life imprisonment, the death sentence was later commuted to life by the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court. Many of the accused, who had the powerful backing of local politicians, were not even charged, and some were acquitted. The case exemplified everything that is wrong with such investigations, and during the post-mortem process, the bodies of the two women who were suspected to be sexually assaulted, had not been examined at all. Their bodies were later exhumed for a re-examination, but it was too late by then to establish anything.

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Maratha reservation deserved?

Let us go back to the 2009 general election, where in Ahmednagar district the Republican Party of India (Athawale) candidate, Ramdas Athawale, contested on a ticket given by the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) combine. The Congress satrap from Ahmednagar and sugar baron Balasaheb Vikhe Patil campaigned against Mr. Athawale and he lost the Shirdi seat, leaving him bitter and furious. Mr. Patil addressed gatherings in which he asked people not to vote for Mr. Athawale, who, he said, would put all the Marathas behind bars for committing caste atrocities. The strategy seems to have worked as the election ended in an embarrassing defeat for Mr. Athawale, benefitting the Shiv Sena, which emerged victorious. The Marathas had for some time demanded reservation under the Other Backward Class (OBC) category claiming economic backwardness and the government finally agreed to it as an election sop in 2014.

In 2008, the 22nd report of the Maharashtra State Commission for Backward Classes headed by Justice R.M. Bapat had categorically rejected the Maratha demand for reservation. Before this, several commissions had refused to endorse reservations for Marathas saying they were the dominant caste. Justice Bapat had said that unlike the SCs, the Marathas did not suffer from social stigma. However, in July, before the 2014 State Assembly election, the Maharashtra government issued an ordinance granting 16 per cent reservation to Marathas and five per cent reservation to Muslims in government jobs and educational institutions. This move has been challenged in the Bombay High Court. The Marathas and their organisations had also demanded relaxation of the stringent provisions of the Atrocities Act as they felt the community was being unfairly targeted.

The strong cooperative movement, especially in western Maharashtra, has ensured that the Marathas, who dominated the Congress party and later the NCP, controlled most of the local-level organisations. A solid base involving local bodies, sugar or milk cooperatives and more lately, land grabbing activities and the thriving construction business, has ensured that they are well-entrenched. There is a culture of impunity, not only confined to crimes against the SCs but women and weaker sections too. The newly announced reservation has further empowered the Marathas and though affirmative action policies for the SCs are in place, they continue to be at the receiving end.

Spike in caste-related crimes

While it is true that the situation in Maharashtra, with a total of 1,678 cases of crimes against SCs in 2013, is not as worrisome as States such as Bihar, which reported 5,584 cases accounting for 39.9 per cent of the total cases of caste-related crimes in the country, it is nevertheless of concern that there has been an upward spike in caste-related crimes as a whole. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports a total of 13,975 cases under the Atrocities Act as compared to 12,576 in the year 2012, an increase of 11.1 per cent. As per NCRB data, conviction rates for caste-related crimes is low — the average conviction rate for crimes against SCs and Scheduled Tribes stood at 23.8 per cent and 16.4 per cent respectively as compared to the overall conviction rate of 40.2 per cent relating to IPC cases.

Members of the SCs continue to suffer from social stigma and anything could provoke violence against them — it could be a simple demand for water supply, or a visit to a hotel or even falling in love. Given these concerns, government reservation for the better off classes and castes is only likely to encourage the existing culture of impunity surrounding crimes perpetrated against the marginalised.

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/comment-on-caste-related-crimes/article6595785.ece