Dalit protests swept India’s caste-conscious north on April 2, leaving nine people dead and many injured. Dalits occupy the lowest rung of the Hindu caste stratification system.
Formerly known as “untouchables”, they took to the streets following a Supreme Court order diluting the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 that protects the community against discrimination. In its new ruling, the court said the law was being “rampantly misused” to settle personal scores.
The government has filed a petition in the Supreme Court asking for a rethink on the order. “We have filed a very comprehensive review (petition)…senior lawyers will argue (the case) with all authority,” India’s Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
The community’s protests brought life to a standstill in at least five states in the north, disrupting road and rail traffic and destroying public and private property worth millions of rupees.
In the heart of India – Madhya Pradesh state, which has a sizeable tribal population – six people were killed following the call for Bharat Bandh, a nationwide shutdown. Two people were killed in Uttar Pradesh, and one in Rajasthan. Violence was reported from parts of Punjab and Jharkhand.
The March 20 Supreme Court decision alleging rampant misuse of the act had hurt the feelings of Dalits, atrocities against whom were once described by the same court as “rarest of rare violence”.
An Amnesty International report says more than 40,000 crimes were reported against Dalits in 2016 alone. Several incidents were reported of members of dominant castes attacking Dalits for accessing public and social spaces or for perceived caste transgressions.
The diluted provisions of the law enable bail for the accused and protect public servants from being blackmailed with false cases.
However, statistics point at poor conviction rates. According to a report in Hindustan Times, in 2016, only 1.4 per cent of all crimes against scheduled castes that came up for trial ended in convictions; for scheduled tribes, the percentage was 0.8 per cent.
The same report cited a parliamentary panel for the ministry of social justice and empowerment attributing the low conviction rate to wilful negligence by officials. “A close scrutiny of cases revealed that the main reason for the low conviction rate was the bias of the officials involved in the investigation who left loopholes to help the people from their social backgrounds. This eventually led to the high acquittal rate.”
The main opposition Congress party’s leader Ghulam Nabi Azad alleged that incidents of atrocities on Dalits and minorities increased in the country since the National Democratic Alliance swept to power in 2014.
Dalits are still not allowed to attend the same temples and schools or draw water from the same wells as upper caste people. They are often found doing menial labour with 90 Dalit manual scavengers dying while cleaning clogged sewers in the recent past.