A cry for justice

Published : Jun 24, 2000 00:00 IST

At the National Public Hearing on Dalit Human Rights in Chennai, the country's most oppressed section narrates its tales of woe.


THE emaciated old man recalled in broken sentences the gruesome details of the recent carnage in Kambalapalli village in Kolar district, Karnataka. His wife, daughter and two sons were burnt alive, along with three others, when members of the Reddy commu nity set fire to three huts belonging to Dalit families. His eldest son, the first graduate from the village, was murdered two years ago, also by caste Hindus. With folded hands, he pleaded that protection be given to his daughter-in-law and two grandchi ldren, the only other survivors in his family.

All the Dalits in the village had fled in fear of further attacks. Neither he nor the other victims want to return home. Do they think that the police will not provide them protection? "We don't trust the police. They are with the Reddys," said Subbamma. Her younger son was one of the victims of the carnage and elder son ran away in panic. She went on: "The police are trying to catch our children. Please save them."

The auditorium of the World University Service Centre in Chennai was full. It was a picture of the much-celebrated diversity of India, though not represented by the middle or upper strata of society. A cross-section of the nation's most oppressed had gat hered to participate in the National Public Hearing on Dalit Human Rights. Many of the Dalit victims of atrocities from across the country - from Gujarat, Punjab, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu - had knocked at the doors of justice for a long time in vain. They had come because in their hearts there still was a flicker of hope and because their anger could no longer be contained.

The Public Hearing on April 18 and 19 was the culmination of years of grassroots-level work done by a large number of activist groups, which came together two years ago under the banner of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. The Public Hearing h ad a jury of nine members - Justice H. Suresh, former judge of the Bombay High Court; Justice K. Punnaiah, former judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court; Justice Amir Das, former judge of the Patna High Court; Dr. Mohini Giri, former Chairperson of the N ational Commission for Women; Dr. V. Vasanthi Devi, former Vice-Chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu; Rani Jethmalani and Sona Khan, Supreme Court lawyers; Kumud Pawde, Dalit writer; and Dr. R.K. Nayak, a retired India n Administrative Service officer. The jury sat in two benches and heard 58 cases.

The Campaign Secretariat had done considerable groundwork with painstaking documentation. The preliminary findings of the jury were presented to the press at the end of the second day. Detailed observations and recommendations on each of the cases will b e drawn up later. In each of the cases notice/summons had been sent to the accused and the authorities to depose before the jury. Except in one case, none turned up. The final report and recommendations will be sent to the accused and the authorities con cerned for their response and will then be published.

The Public Hearing brought out the raw reality of everyday life for India's 170 million Dalits, who continue to live in semi-slavery, abject poverty, and humiliation 50 years after Independence. Untouchability is still the fate of Manu's Panchamas . Constitutional guarantees, enabling legislation and welfare measures have brought a minuscule measure of improvement in their lot, but these have been accompanied by a brutal backlash from the dominant castes. The official data with the Scheduled Caste s/Scheduled Tribes Commission show that between 1981 and 1991 atrocities against Dalits went up by 23.4 per cent. The cases presented at the Public Hearing covered a wide range of interrelated issues that constitute the condition of Dalits today - untouc hability, caste violence, social boycott, mass killings, laxity in the implementation of the S.C./S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, manual scavenging, state violence, atrocities against Dalit women, bonded labour, discrimination against Dalit elected representatives, landlessness, the abominable state of Dalit schools, and so on.

While the victims of Kambalapalli were resigned to their fate, it was anger and a cry for justice that rang out from the quivering lips of Sitalakshmi from Tirunelveli. Her daughter Rathina Mary and her one-and-a-half-year-old grandson had been killed in the Thamiraparani massacre on July 23, 1999. Sitalakshmi said: "Those police murderers must not be spared. They should be made to pay for the crime." The Thamiraparani killings, likened to the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, are among the most brutal insta nces of state violence in independent India. In the heart of Tirunelveli town, in broad daylight, with the Collector and a Deputy Inspector-General (DIG) of Police sitting in their offices a few metres away, the police unleashed a savage attack on unarme d men and women and pushed some of them into the Thamiraparani river to die.

JOGAMADA and his wife had been bonded labourers for five years along with 20 other Dalit families in a 220-acre (88-hectare) plantation, owned by Sampangi Ramaiah and Ramamurthy in Hanur village in Kollegal taluk, Karnataka. Released recently from bondag e at the intervention of People's Movement for Self-Reliance, the couple resembled hunted animals and could hardly speak. Jogamada's wife and two other Dalit women labourers had been sexually assaulted by the landlord. "How soon after the assault was a c ase of rape filed?" The reply came after some hesitation: "After four months." "How can you hope to prove the crime if it was registered after four months? Why didn't you go to the police immediately?" They looked crestfallen. The prosecutor-activist who accompanied them explained that there was no way they could have sought justice against the landlord. It was only after their release from bondage that they could be persuaded to take their erstwhile master to court. Jogamada's family's tale is a tragic ally common one: a recent door-to-door survey has revealed that there are 397 Dalit families still working as bonded labourers in Kollegal taluk.

It has not always been a story of abject helplessness, though. Senma Pashahbai Sukhabhai, the woman sarpanch who had been dismissed from her elected office, was defiant. The colourful traditional gharara and odini covering her head, she walked up to the witness box with resolute, swift steps. After her election to the reserved post as sarpanch of Dhediya Vansajda village in Mehsana district of Gujarat, she immediately attended to the long-standing basic needs of the villagers. She succeeded in getting b orewells dug and pipelines laid for water supply to benefit all households. The caste Hindus felt threatened. They levelled false charges against her, prevailed upon an obliging District Development Officer to suspend her and finally to dismiss her. She denounced the dominant caste and the colluding officials, while the packed hall listened in rapt attention and appreciation. The Saurashtra dialect of Gujarati in which she spoke posed no barrier. She swore that she would contest the election again and s aid she would win. The audience burst into applause, forgetting that it was a public hearing.

On the second day, the jury listened to P. Sainath, the journalist who has written extensively on Dalit issues. His sensitive and incisive analysis brought into sharp focus the wide prevalence of untouchability half a century after Independence. He spoke about the calculated construction of untouchability over a thousand years, and about the cultural geography of the Indian village, carefully laid out to assign to Dalit dwellings the lowliest and least desirable areas - the southern outskirts, believed to be the abode of Yama, the god of death; the tail-end of river and irrigation systems; close to the most polluting areas; or on the fringes of deserts. The iniquities and the horrors still continue, he said, sometimes fiercely challenged, most often wi th savage backlashes. Untouchability was central to the caste system, Sainath said. "We cannot fight untouchability if we do not fight against the caste system."

Certain issues stood out. There are several constitutional guarantees and legal provisions for the protection of Dalit rights. However, the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, the S.C./S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, the special courts set u p under the latter, the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 and the special machinery it created have hardly been able to protect the life and dignity of Dalits, leave alone ensure them a modicum of equality. In almost every case that came up before the jury, the state machinery had failed to or had been reluctant to register instances of atrocities against Dalits, cases under the S.C./S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, whose provisions are quite stringent. The failure was particularly pronounced amo ng the lower echelons of government. One of the jury-prosecutors from Andhra Pradesh told the jury that the Special Court (Second Additional Sessions Court) at Kurnool had ordered the removal of charges under the S.C./S.T. Act in 40 cases and their filin g under the Indian Penal Code.

Other special enactments are also observed mainly in the breach. The Navsarjan Trust of Ahmedabad deposed that despite the Employment of Manual Scavengers and the Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, which outlawed manual scavenging, man ual removal of night soil, and the construction of dry latrines, there were 28,613 dry latrines in urban Gujarat and 32,999 in the gram panchayats in the State. Official estimates place the number of scavengers in the country, who are engaged in the degr ading task of manual removal of human excreta, at around 400,000; the number of such people in Gujarat is placed around 32,000. They toil under the most inhuman conditions. Narayanamma, an employee of Anantapur municipality, Andhra Pradesh has spent 19 y ears scavenging, cleaning 400 seats of dry toilets a day without even the minimal protection of gloves. She pleaded: "Three generations of my family have done this work. I don't want my children to do it."

The Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1988, and the Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1992, have been powerless to put an end to the Jogini system, the dedication of minor girls, 95 per cent of them Dalits, to tem ples for a life of degradation. Like several other laws meant for the protection of Dalits, the Acts are poorly enforced and suffer from corruption among officials. The two laws have been so framed as to make Devadasis the culprits, and not their patrons .

Hence the strong recommendations of the jury for the strict implementation of the above and similar Acts and for severe punishment to officials who fail to enforce the legislation. The main interim recommendations are that the government should:

1. implement measures designed to ensure that States abolish the practice of untouchability, in compliance with Article 17 of the Constitution;

2. commit themselves to taking steps to prevent further violence and prosecute both state and private actors responsible for caste-motivated attacks on Dalit communities; and

3. fully implement the provisions of the S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and the S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules, 1995. In particular, it should ensure that States establish special courts in every revenue district and appoint special public prosecutors to try cases under the Atrocities Act.

The role of the state in the violence against Dalits emerged as a shocking feature. The caste character of the state stood exposed in case after case of violation of Dalit human rights. The state plays its nefarious role in three essential ways: 1. as a direct perpetrator of violence against Dalits; 2. in exemplary collusion with dominant castes; and 3. in callous inaction when Dalits face attacks. The Thamiraparani police massacre resulted in the death of 17 persons in Tirunelveli. Criminal violence wa s unleashed by the police against Dalits in Gundupatti in Kodaikanal taluk of Tamil Nadu, when the latter boycotted the Lok Sabha election as a protest against the failure of the government to provide them vital road links (Frontline, December 9, 1998). Police brutally suppressed the protest of Dalits of Sachivottamapuram Dalit colony in Kerala against the laying of an 11 KV electricity line over their colony by the Kerala State Electricity Board.

V. Vasanthi Devi, a former Vice-Chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tamil Nadu, was a member of the jury at the National Public Hearing.

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