Print edition : November 19, 2004

Justice A.S. Anand, Chairperson, National Human Rights Commmission, releasing the report by K.B. Saxena(right) in New Delhi. - SANDEEP SAXENA

A recent report takes a hard look at the status of Dalits and recommends measures to ensure that the laws meant to protect them from atrocities are implemented by the state with sincerity.

IN a recent speech at the release of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) "Report on Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes" authored by K.B. Saxena, retired Indian Administrative Service officer, Justice A.S. Anand, Chairperson of the NHRC, called upon the government to adopt a rights-based approach and not a welfare-based one in addressing the condition of people belonging to the Scheduled Castes (Dalits). Terming the continuing discrimination and atrocities against Dalits as "shameful", Justice Anand blamed them mainly on society's "indifference" and "refusal to change its mindset". He drew attention to the "lopsided enforcement" of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, in several parts of the country.

That Saxena looks at issues relating to Dalits from the same perspective as Justice Anand is evident from his observations in the report. He makes a brilliant analysis of the Dalit issue in its entirety and the state's response to it. The report indicts successive governments for their lukewarm attitude to the oppression of Dalits. It is also highly critical of the sizable orthodox and influential section in the dominant community for its continued hostility towards the underprivileged who have been segregated for centuries, and its insensitivity to Dalits' suffering.

The study begins with looking at caste-related violence from a historical perspective to help understand the background of "organised violence directed against members of identified groups/communities", which has been "a distinct feature of Indian society for quite sometime". What characterises the violence against Dalits is that unlike other incidents of organised violence, the victims are "chosen on the basis of birth in a given social entity".

Violence against Dalits, therefore, "has the distinctiveness of being embedded in the social structure of the dominant community itself". It is this caste-based, hierarchical structure that "lays down the norms of conduct [for relationships] between its more privileged groups and the subdued and subordinate segment". Dalits are kept at the bottom of the social ladder, as "outcastes" and "untouchables" outside the four-tier structure.

The report says: "It is this caste relationship in Hindu society which is getting disturbed by forces of pressure both from above and below." "The frequency and intensity of violence," the report observes, "is an offshoot of desperate attempts by the upper caste groups to protect their entrenched status against the process of disengagement and upward mobility among lower castes resulting from affirmative action of State Policy [enshrined in the Constitution of India]."

The scheme of the Constitution envisaged, the report says, a three-pronged strategy for changing the status of Dalits, classified as being among the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, based on the traditional social order. The strategy was meant to remove the disabilities and other constraints suffered by Dalits, provide for punitive action against violence inflicted on them, and protect their economic interests through legal and legislative measures.

Under a policy of "compensatory discrimination", the government provided for the reservation of jobs for Dalits in public services, ensured representation for them in elected bodies and evolved schemes for their education. It also undertook development initiatives to bridge the gulf between Dalits and the rest of society in respect of economic conditions and social status. Some of these schemes, particularly job reservation and educational facilities, have no doubt benefited a section of Dalits. However, the benefits are yet to reach the vast majority of them.

Many of the legislative measures have not benefited Dalits to any appreciable extent. In fact, sincere and strict implementation of laws relating to land reforms, particularly the land ceiling law, which aims to distribute surplus land to the landless, would have greatly enhanced the socio-economic conditions of Dalits who constitute a substantial proportion of the agricultural labour, the report remarks.

Referring to this, the report observes: "The implementation of land reforms has been subverted by the absence of political will and bureaucratic commitment, loopholes in the laws, tremendous manipulative power of the landed classes, lack of organisation among the poor and excessive interference of courts. Therefore, the intended benefits to the poor in general failed to materialise." The report also cites the failure to update land records in all the States, barring West Bengal, as yet another reason for the failure of land reforms. Laws relating to debt relief also have not benefited the rural poor to the desired extent, it says.

Similarly, the laws on bonded labour, child labour, migrant labour and scavengers (safai karamcharis), if properly implemented, could have contributed a great deal to the liberation of Dalits, who constitute the largest segment of each of these categories of workers. The report blames this on the tardy implementation of the legal and legislative initiatives, judicial delay in settling disputes, inadequacy of the laws and so on.

Lack of political will, the lethargy of the bureaucracy and the deep-rooted prejudice against Dalits among large sections of civil society, which gets reflected in the attitude of those in the administration, are among the reasons cited for the failure of many a development initiative. A number of schemes meant for Dalits have fallen by the wayside for want of funds, or much of the funds allotted for certain special projects remain unspent. Schemes such as the Special Component Plan for Scheduled Castes, devised as a mechanism to ensure adequate allocation of funds for the people under this category, have also not done much to bring succour to Dalits, mostly owing to the absence of political will to implement the scheme.

This lopsided development and half-hearted moves to ameliorate the conditions of the poor have generated only desperation and frustration all around. Growing unemployment and loss of jobs in the wake of deteriorating economic conditions over the past 10 years or more under the reforms regime have also added to the misery of the poor.

The ground has thus been made more fertile for tension and unrest to grow in many parts of the country. The situation has also turned ripe for communal and casteist forces to sow the seeds of division and discord and indulge in violence. Dalits, being the most vulnerable of the poor, are the worst hit, with atrocities against them continuing in a number of States, the report observes. It says: "The violence takes brutal forms and turns into acts of atrocities against a whole group of people, such as massacre, rape, burning of houses and through more subtle methods like social boycott, which are intended to block their access to basic necessities and services."

WHENEVER atrocities against Dalits involving loss of life and property are reported, human rights and Dalit activists complain that the police are generally reluctant to file cases under the stringent provisions of the Atrocities Act. They generally book cases either under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) or, at best, under the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act, 1955, much milder than the Atrocities Act. This often results in the culprits going scot-free. The Atrocities Act was enacted mainly with the intention of giving more teeth to the earlier Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955 (amended and renamed the PCR Act), and for creating a deterrent against physical violence. The Act brought new types of offences under "atrocities" against Dalits by non-Dalit persons and provided for more stringent punishment for the guilty.

More importantly, the Act also covers policemen and enforcement authorities who fail to protect Dalits from atrocities. It empowers Special Courts to extern "potential offenders" from scheduled areas and tribal areas and attach the property of an offender, and prohibits the grant of anticipatory bail to the potential accused. It also provides for the payment of compensation to victims or their legal heirs.

The report says: "Under-reporting of the Atrocities Act is a very common phenomenon and therefore the decline in the number of registered cases does not provide a true picture of the incidence of atrocities." It quotes several studies to show that all reported atrocities are not registered under the Atrocities Act. "The non-registration of cases, apart from reflecting caste bias and corruption, has also been attributed to the pressure on the police to keep reported crime rates low in their jurisdiction," says the report.

The geographical distribution of atrocities from 1995 to 1999 indicates that the largest number of cases have been reported from Uttar Pradesh every year. This is primarily because Uttar Pradesh has the largest population of Dalits compared with other States.

The report recommends 150 measures to the state to implement the Atrocities Act with all sincerity and with all the force at its command. These include identification of atrocity-prone areas as well as regions where untouchability is practised, preparation of an action plan to counter it, and conduct of a three-tier training programme for police and revenue officials and an annual workshop for District Magistrates and Police Superintendents on the implementation of laws in this regard. It also advocates a greater role for panchayati raj institutions, as well as self-help groups and non-governmental organisations in the implementation of the laws to protect Dalits.

The NHRC, for its part, has set up a Dalit Cell under the charge of a Commission Member to monitor the implementation of the recommendations made in the report.

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