The SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was finally strengthened in 2015 through long-pending amendments that sought to correct the abysmally low rate of convictions under the law. The amended law recognised a whole range of atrocities commonly meted out to SC/ST people, mandated establishment of exclusive Special Courts and appointment of Exclusive Special Public Prosecutors to try the offences under this act, and provided for action on public servants for dereliction of duty and failure to protect the rights of victims and witnesses. The amended law came into effect in April 2016. Now, when the amended Act has been in place for a mere two years, and there has been no assessment of the seriousness with which it has been implemented, the Supreme Court and the Government of India have already given credibility to the bogey of 'misuse' and 'false complaints' and sought to irretrievably dilute the Act.
The Supreme Court in its order on March 20, 2018, took away the Act's teeth, by mandating that no arrest could be made under this law without written permission by the appointing authority in the case of an accused public servant, and without written permission of the Senior Superintendent of Police of the District in the case of any other accused. Moreover, it mandated that no FIR could be registered under the Act without a preliminary enquiry as to whether the case falls in the parameters of the Atrocities Act and is not frivolous or motivated”! It is to be noted that these dilutions actually end up making the POA Act weaker than many other ordinary criminal laws – a case of attempt to murder or intention to commit dacoity for instance, do not require any "preliminary enquiry" to rule out "frivolous or motivated" cases. These are among the most widely misused provisions of criminal law: police routinely file the most blatantly false cases against innocent bystanders or protesters from poor and deprived backgrounds invoking these provisions, but the bogey of 'false cases' and 'misuse' is reserved for laws intended to protect Dalits from atrocities (POA Act) and women from domestic cruelty (498 A). The Supreme Court order effectively frustrates the operation of the POA Act's bar on grant of anticipatory bail, which has now been defeated by the fact that there is a practical prohibition on arrests.
Following the extremely successful Bharat Bandh called by Dalit groups and supported by Left and democratic organisations and movements, the Government of India announced that it would file a review petition against the Supreme Court order. But the fact is that in the Supreme Court, the Additional Solicitor General Maninder Singh, representing the Government of India, had conceded the baseless claims of 'misuse' and 'false cases,' and backed the dilutions of the anticipatory bail provisions! The ASG while submitting that the Government while considering the issue in Parliament had rejecting 'punishments for false cases' to be 'against the spirit of the act,' had failed to point out that the basis of the rejection was the fact that acquittals or failure to convict do not amount to 'false cases.'
It is ironic that appeals against acquittals of all the accused in a series of Dalit massacre cases including the Tsunduru case of Andhra Pradesh and the Bathani Tola, Laxmanpur Bathe and other Bihar cases languish without a hearing in the same Supreme Court which has so blithely accepted low conviction rates or witnesses or complainants turning hostile as evidence of 'misuse' and 'false cases'. The acquitted Ranveer Sena men boasted on camera (in the Cobrapost sting operation) of having committed the Bihar massacres. Witnesses in these cases risked their lives to give evidence – only to have justice elude them and watch the killers roam free. In the absence of witness protection, and the ugly reality of collusion by police and prosecution to protect the accused, witnesses in some SC/ST atrocity cases do turn hostile. Even where they stand firm, weak and biased investigation and prosecution result in acquittals. These instances simply cannot be taken as evidence of 'false cases'!
The Supreme Court made a travesty of Ambedkar's views on the Constitutional values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, by quoting those views to suggest that false cases filed under the POA Act militate against these values and deter "integration of society". The judgement is singularly silent on the fact that "integration" and fraternity" are actually prevented by untouchability, not by Dalits seeking justice against untouchability. According to the India Human Development Survey 2017 Untouchability is still practiced by one in every four Indians, resulting in segregation of Dalits in schools, mid-day meals and restaurants, violently enforced segregation from community resources including water sources and burial grounds, and murders of Dalit men who marry non-Dalit women.
The Bharat Bandh called by Dalit groups has been demonised in the media as 'violent'. The fact is that there were only isolated instances of violence by protesters; while there is vast evidence of organised violence against the protesters and against Dalits in general. Nine Dalit protesters were killed in such violence – six of these in Madhya Pradesh; two in Uttar Pradesh and one in Rajasthan. In Gwalior, for instance, one Raja Singh Chauhan, neither a Dalit nor a protester, is alleged to have opened fire with a pistol and killed three Dalits, and then attempted to blame the shootings on Dalit protesters. Firing by a police officer is alleged to have claimed a life of a Dalit protester in Dabra near Gwalior. In Rajasthan, eyewitnesses have said that the self-styled Rajput Karni Sena unleashed violence against Dalit protesters. Ironically, those blaming the nine deaths on violence by Dalit participants in the Bharat Bandh forget that the Karni Sena's sustained violence against the Padmavati film did not result in any Karni Sena man being shot dead – instead several State Governments refused to enforce Supreme Court orders to screen Padmavati, and refused to act against Karni Sena violence! While hundreds of Dalit protesters have been arrested, the Karni Sena violence was treated with kid gloves and there were virtually no arrests.
Moreover, the claim that the Bandh caused the violence is belied by the fact that on the day after the Bandh, violent mobs have attacked Dalit slums, and set on fire the houses of both the sitting and the former MLAs in Hindaun town of Karauli district. Predictably, there have been no police firings or wholesale arrests to curb this wanton anti-Dalit violence. Protests against the dilution of the Atrocities Act have been met with more atrocities, and the victims have been branded 'violent' while the perpetrators enjoy impunity and are called 'victims' of false cases'.
The Modi Government must be held accountable for its dubious role in allowing the Atrocities Act to be diluted unchallenged in the Supreme Court. Its posturing now cannot acquit it of its complicity in the dilution. Further, we must ask why the Government of India is not making itself a party to the pending Supreme Court appeals in massacre case acquittals? Why did its representative not even make a mention of these cases during the hearing? Why is it not seeking expediting of the hearing of these appeals? Why are its Ministers and NDA allies who claim to represent Dalit interests silent on those cases? The appeals in the Bathani Tola and other Bihar massacre cases are languishing in the Supreme Court for the past six years.
The determination and broad unity of protesters against the dilution of the Atrocities Act made the Bharat Bandh a resounding success. Now the same united forces must keep the protests going to demand the release of arrested Dalit protesters, arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators of violence against the Dalit protesters, and reversal of the judicial dilution of the Atrocities Act.
A 3 member fact-finding team of the CPI (ML) led by State Secretary Sudhakar Yadav, Jaiprakash Narayan, and State Standing Committee member Om Prakash Singh visited Jiyanpur and neighbouring villages in Azamgarh district on 9 April 2018 from where the Party received complaints of a large scale witch-hunt and victimisation of dalits by the administration during and after the Bharat Bandh on 2 April. The members of the enquiry team met and spoke with the villagers, the injured, and the youth imprisoned in jail and submitted the report of their findings.
Attacks on dalits and minorities have increased across the country after the Modi government came to power in 2014. But such attacks are especially acute in UP: after the Yogi government came to power, feudal-communal forces have been given a free reign and are trampling unchecked across Uttar Pradesh. Moreover, the administration and police also openly display casteist and communal hatred. This is confirmed during the Bharat Bandh to protest against the dilution of the SC ST Act - by the manner in which the state machinery identified and picked up dalit youths from their homes from villages Jiyanpur, Maltari, Badaon, Barkotha Tari, and other villages coming under Sagri Tehsil in Azamgarh district, beat them up in full view of people and threw them into jail.
After enquiring in depth into the incidents, the fact-finding team came to the conclusion that the witch-hunt of dalits was conducted in a planned and calculated way. Instead of ensuring maintenance of law and order the police actually incited riots, beat up dalits with lathis without reason and without warning, damaged and burnt vehicles, and implicated innocent dalits in false cases. This is the result of Yogi’s speeches, statements, and style of working which have aggravated anti-Dalit and communal hatred in the state machinery.
The enquiry team demanded that all false cases against innocent dalits should be taken back, arrested people should be released, strict action should be taken against Kotwali Jiyanpur in-charge Munish Pratap Singh Chauhan and other guilty police personnel, oppression of dalits should be ended, and the government should bring an ordinance to restore the SC ST Act to its earlier undiluted form.
When the above demands were not met, CPI (ML) activists led by senior Party leader and All India Kisan Mahasabha State President Jaiprakash Narayan sat on a 2 day hunger strike at the Azamgarh district court on 16-17 April 2018. q