Any attempt to address caste violence has always been an eyewash
Nidheesh J Villatt
NIDHEESH J VILLATT
2015-11-14 , Issue 46 Volume 12
“I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation…. At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business.”
– Narendra Modi in his book Karmayog, 2007
The first anniversary gift of the ruling Hindutva dispensation to the Dalits arrived in the month of May. Sagar Shejiwal, a Dalit student from Maharashtra was brutally murdered by a mob of upper-caste youth. His sin: Possessing a mobile ringtone praising the legendary Dalit icon and father of the Indian constitution, BR Ambedkar.
The last couple of months were a testimony to the fear that many harboured when Narendra Modi came to power. Not only were there predictions of continuous witch-hunting of Muslims over a period of five years, several political commentators fretted over an increase in caste violence. To their surprise, the Modi government, without much ado, fanned a climate of intolerance within the span of a few months instead of stretching it over its five-year tenure. While the Muslim community was targetted relentlessly, the Dalits, already suffering under a deeply oppressive caste structure, have borne the brunt of the violence unleashed by Hindutva terror. “India is witnessing an unprecedented rise in crimes against Dalits since 2014,” says PL Puniya, chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC). “What is shocking is the barbaric nature of the crimes. Practices of untouchability and caste discrimination have changed in terms of their form and nature and these new tools of violence have been unleashed in such a way that the perpetrators feel that they have a newfound license to oppress.”
The statistics agree with Puniya’s observations. A cursory look at the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data reveals an alarming trend of growing caste violence. In 2014, the NCRB recorded an increase of 19.4 percent in total crimes committed against Dalits as compared to the previous year. Out of the 47,064 crimes committed against Dalits, 2,388 cases (5.07 percent) were rapes committed against Dalit women. Add to this the 2,346 cases of sexual assault, 837 cases of sexual harassment and 142 cases of assault, with intent to disrobe Dalit women.
While the statistics paint a grim picture, the shocking reality of the caste bias of the police is a story in itself. In 2014, the police only invoked the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities (POA) Act — a law that aims to prevent offences against Scheduled Castes and Tribes — in just 21.3 percent of the cases registered. With respect to the majority of cases, the police was careful to invoke relatively harmless provisions from the IPC. The judiciary too, is no different. At the end of 2014, 85.5 percent of the cases registered under the SC/ST POA Act were pending trial. A whopping 71.6 percent of them resulted in acquittals. “The BJP’s march to Delhigave right-wing upper caste forces more courage to unleash violence,” says an official in the NCSC. “The most brutal forms of violence were recorded in BJP ruled states such as Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra in recent times. The conservative and highly problematic outlook of the rulers in these states is encouraging this violence.”
In Rajasthan and Haryana, when the newly elected BJP came to power, certain controversial amendments in the Panchayat Raj Act were initiated. One of the amendments, put forth by the Haryana government, stipulated five eligibility conditions for candidates contesting in the three-tier panchayat system. The conditions include the following: compulsory middle-school educational qualification; mandatory clearance of crop loans taken from banks, electricity bills and arrears; the candidate should not be charge-sheeted under sections of crimes involving 10 years imprisonment and the candidate should have a functional pucca toilet at their place of residence.
“The compulsory ‘middle-school pass’ criteria for Dalits is a subtle caste war,” says Jagmati Sangwan, general secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). “According to the 2011 census, more than 80 percent of Dalit women cannot contest elections if this criteria is implemented. In the last couple of years, Haryana has witnessed several Dalit women becoming panchayat heads despite their lack of formal education. Seeing this Dalit assertion, the Khap panchayats were furious and hell-bent on silencing the women.”
In Haryana, as in the rest of the country, caste-related violence is on a steady rise. The government, however, chooses to look the other way.
Towards the fag end of the UPA government’s tenure, two ordinances — the Securities Laws (Amendment) Ordinance and the ordinance on prevention of atrocities on SCs and STs — attempting to put a check on the rising tide of caste atrocities, were promulgated in March 2014. As soon as the NDA government came into power, both ordinances were sufficiently diluted. While the Securities Laws Ordinance was converted into an Act of Parliament in the first budget session, to “protect the interests of investors and to ensure orderly development of the securities market”, the ordinance regarding atrocities on SCs and STs — which had path breaking provisions to ensure justice to India’s most exploited communities — was made to lapse, despite of severe criticism.
When civil society movements led by the National Coalition for Strengthening SCs & STs (POA) Act (NCSPA) raised issues regarding the government’s lackadaisical approach to the ordinance, the government was forced to place the Bill in the Lok Sabha. However, even after that, the bill was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment in order to further delay it. While the Committee chaired by BJP MP Ramesh Bais gave the green signal to the amendments and submitted its report by December 2014, the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha only in August. The fate of the Act still hangs in the air since the Bill has not been placed in the Rajya Sabha yet.
“If the government and the political parties are serious about ending caste atrocities, they should take steps to pass the POA Amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha,” says VA Rameshnathan, convener of the NCSPA. “The new Bill, along with provisions for exclusive special courts and exclusive public prosecutors, ensures speedy trial within two months. It also addresses hurdles such as the non-registration of cases, delays in investigation, arrests, filing charge-sheets, trial and providing relief and rehabilitation to victims. There are also provisions for providing security to victims and witnesses. Significantly, it also covers economic and social boycott, a less addressed issue with respect to caste.”
Leaving the Bill to an uncertain future, the Centre also reduced the budgetary allocation of the Special Central Assistance (SCA) — a fund meant for the implementation of the POA Act. In addition to this, if one takes into account the actual expenditure details from several states, the amount of money spent to implement the POA has been less than the budgeted amount.
Such fiscal policies shaped by neo-liberal interests must also be seen in the light of the current scenario. At a time when there is a steady rise in caste atrocities, the lack of sufficient exclusive special courts and prosecutors along with the shortage of funds for compensation and rehabilitation of victims of caste atrocities, suggests the need to speed up the process of ensuring justice to the Dalits.
Take for instance, the legal history of the 1997 Lakshmanpur Bathe massacre in Bihar. When 58 Dalits were killed by Ranvir Sena — the upper-caste landlord militia — the trial of the case went on for a period of 12 years. The case was transferred from court to court and several crucial witnesses turned hostile owing to political, social and institutional pressure. Finally, when the trial court came out with its verdict in 2010, the Patna High Court dismissed it on inane technical grounds.
In several instances, technical errors are introduced to ease the process of acquittals. As per the POA Act, atrocity cases cannot be investigated by an officer below the rank of the Deputy Superintendent of the Police (DSP). “In cases where perpetrators were well- connected, the police introduced technical mistakes while preparing the FIR,” says Rameshnathan. “If this strategy failed to work, the case would be investigated by an officer below the rank of a DSP. This would lead to the court to acquit the accused on technical grounds.”
More recently, in Sunpedh village in the Faridabad district of Haryana, the brutal killing of two infants stands as a testament to the inefficiency of the existing POA Act. According to a fact finding report by the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ), upper-caste Rajputs of the village were jealous of the economic stability of Jitender’s (father of the deceased infants) family. In a bid to suppress their growing assertion, the Rajputs had even boycotted the family to the extent that shopkeepers had refused to sell daily rations to them.
It was in the midst of these undercurrents that the infants of the family were burnt to death. And, disturbingly, this heinous act is not the extent of the caste violence, now the Rajputs are even forcing lawyers of the Faridabad court — who are largely Rajput themselves — to not take up the case.
In 2010, the Navsarjan trust, a Gujarat-based Dalit NGO, published a study titled Understanding Untouchability: A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1589 villages. The study identified 98 forms of untouchability practices in Gujarat. The findings established a few serious concerns.
Several Dalit families in Gujarat were forced to migrate from their villages as a result of social and economic boycott. In some cases, Dalits who refused to vote for the BJP were boycotted. In some others, Dalits who protested against the violence unleashed by development projects were also boycotted.
“Citing our study, the opposition raised questions on caste violence in the Assembly,” says Manjula Pradeep, executive director, Navsarjan. “Instead of engaging with it, the Gujarat government led by the then CM Narendra Modi, ridiculed the study and initiated the process of reviewing our report. Led by a team from the Centre of Environmental Planning and Technological (CEPT) University, the review concluded that caste violence and discrimination in Gujarat was “largely related to perceptions”. They also undermined serious forms of caste discrimination by calling them ‘rural traditions.” In the light of such reviews, it is unsurprising that as per the 2013 NCRB statistics, 98 percent of caste atrocity cases registered in Gujarat have resulted in acquittals.
In the run-up to the 2014 General Election, Modi, backed by a shrewd PR team, had pitched his OBC ‘ chaiwallah’ background as his ticket to victory. Drawing attention to his aam aadmi credentials, Modi played the caste-card to its hilt until he was elected to power. However, with the Bihar Assembly election around the corner, it is interesting to note that where Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav are identified as OBC leaders, Modi, an OBC himself, seems to have transcended his caste identity. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the Prime Minister finds manual scavenging to be a ‘noble’ profession. By stating that it is a part of ‘internal spiritual unity’, the Modi-led NDA government is only here to stay, keeping caste hierarchies intact.