AFTER a protracted delay, the Rajya Sabha finally passed the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill with a voice vote without debate or discussion on December 21. To commemorate Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, the government decided to dedicate the first two days of the winter session of Parliament to a special sitting on Ambedkar and the Constitution. The speeches made and the positions taken thereof perhaps ensured the passage of the Bill, which had inexplicably been pending for a long time. The amendment sought to expand the range of offences committed against Scheduled Castes (S.C.s) and Scheduled Tribes (S.T.s) and make them punishable. The Lok Sabha had passed the Bill in August 2015.
The law originally enacted in 1989 needed to be strengthened and expanded in view of the increasing atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis, notwithstanding the odd criticism against misuse of the Act. The amendments make cognisable and punishable social and economic boycott and other forms of atrocities. The amended Act expands the list of offences and crimes defined as atrocities from 22 to 37. Perhaps its most important feature is the criminalising of social and economic boycott of Dalits and Adivasis. Families, individuals or entire communities were boycotted for having defied powerful sections within villages. Haryana is one of the States where it happened frequently. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there was a sevenfold increase in crimes against S.C.s over the last 15 years in Haryana; from 117 in 2000, the figure shot up to 830 in 2014.
Despite its prevalence in several States, and increasingly in cases that involved inter-caste marriages of Dalits and non-Dalits and refusal to work for low wages, no government at the Centre so far had thought it necessary to include such blatant discrimination in the list of atrocities.
The amended Act also provides for enhanced protection to Dalit and Adivasi women against sexual exploitation and being dedicated as devadasis or branded as witches. It has expanded the ambit of sexual violence to make punishable the intentional touching of a Dalit or Adivasi woman without her consent or the use of words or gestures of a sexual nature. What it does not do is to have stronger investigative and punitive provisions as far as mass violence against Dalit women is concerned, such as gang rape and mass murders.
The Act takes cognisance of election-related violence involving coercion of S.C.s and Adivasis to vote for a particular candidate or party or to prevent them from contesting. It provides protection against obstruction of elected members or chairs or local bodies from performing their duties after the election. In addition to the law prohibiting manual scavenging, the amended provisions make punishable the act of making an S.C. or S.T. member do manual scavenging or of compelling anyone to dispose of or carry human or animal carcasses or dig graves. While these provisions are, in themselves, laudatory, it remains to be seen whether the governments at the Centre and in the States will provide alternatives means of livelihood to those who have been engaged in these activities. In the absence of alternatives, the law itself might prove to be inadequate.
The new provisions also make punishable acts that prevent the equal use of resources such as burial or cremation grounds, water resources, public conveniences, passages and roads, riding of bicycles and motorcycles, sitting on horses in wedding processions, and so on.
Given the frequent occurrence of defacing of statues of Dalit icons and leaders, the Act makes punishable the insult to any object, statue, photograph, portrait and so on held sacred or in high esteem by Dalits or Adivasis. There are new presumptive clauses that ensure that if it was proved that the accused person had personal knowledge of the victim or his or her family, the court shall presume the accused knew the caste or tribal identity of the victim unless the contrary was proved.
The Act lists out specific duties of public servants, including reading out of the first information report (FIR) in cases involving Dalits and Adivasis. There is a new chapter on witness and victim rights as well. One of the more positive features of the amendment is that it allows greater protection for Adivasis’ forest rights. It provides for the establishment of special courts for the expeditious conduct of criminal trials at the sessions court level and the appointment of an exclusive special public prosecutor.
Under the Act, every State government should provide special courts in every district with provision for day-to-day trials to ensure speedy disposal of cases—within two months in the trial court and three months for appeals in the High Court. Crimes are easily committed against Dalits and Adivasis because they are economically vulnerable. This, combined with their social vulnerability, makes them an easy target. The latter is made worse by the fact of landlessness among S.C.s and S.T.s even today, and where they have some land, they are unable to hold on to it. There is no national law that prohibits the acquisition of land owned by S.C.s and S.T.s.
Therefore, along with the progressive features in this Act, the government needs to evolve a robust economic vision for these groups. For instance, their relative exclusion in the organised sector, both public and private, is very high. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the only party to demand a special session to discuss issues facing Dalits as a tribute to Ambedkar, but it was not agreed to. The CPI(M) had also suggested that the government enact laws for extending reservation to the private sector and providing statutory status to the S.C. and S.T. Sub-Plan where fund allocations should be on the basis of the enumerated population of Dalits and Adivasis.
According to a 2011 survey of manpower in the private sector by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), , the proportion of S.C. and S.T. employees in the private sector in some of the most industrialised States hardly reflected their numbers in the population in those States. For example, S.C.s and S.T.s account for 19.1 per cent of Maharashtra’s population, their share in private-sector employment was a mere 5 per cent. In Gujarat and Karnataka, S.C.s and S.T.s were 22 and 23 per cent of their respective populations but comprised 9 per cent of the total number employed in the private sector.
Merely talking to Dalit entrepreneurs and encouraging the animal spirit of Dalit capitalism is not going to address the economic basis of the exploitation suffered by the large majority of S.C.s and S.T.s.