Under fire since the September 15 arrests of two publishers and as many book editors from Barnala and Samana over some caste-denoting words in reprinted works of late poet Babu Rajab Ali, the Punjab Police have now withdrawn the SC/ST Act against the two editors-cum-poets - Sukhwinder Singh Swatantar, 50, and Jagjeet Singh Sahoke, 65 - who belong to the Scheduled Castes (SCs).
The move comes after much hue and cry in intellectual circles and also the comments of Dalip Singh Pandhi, member of the Punjab State Commission for Scheduled Castes, who had agreed that re-printing historical texts could not be construed as intentional insult.
On Saturday, too, Pandhi criticised the fact that the two publishers - Amit Mittar, 37, of Tark Bharti Parkashan, Barnala, and Ashok Garg, 52, of Sangam Publishers, Samana - and the unnamed Delhi-based printer of both books still face the charge of having insulted SCs.
In fact, the publishers, editors and the printer are all still accused under section 153 (promoting enmity on grounds of religion, race, etc) of the IPC, though Mittar and Sahoke, who were in Barnala jail, managed to get bail from the court there on Saturday. Garg and Swatantar had got bail on Tuesday.
"The case has no standing under the SC/SC Act. I will push for withdrawal of the charge against the two publishers and the printer too," Pandhi told HT.
Barnala deputy superintendent of police (DSP) Harmik Singh Deol, who is the complainant as per the FIR, said, "In the challan presented before the court, we withdrew the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against Sahoke, as the law does not apply to him on account of his being from a Scheduled Caste." Asked why it took so long, he said, "Well, procedures have to be followed."
Samana DSP Sewa Singh Malhi, complainant in the FIR registered in his area, also acknowledged the removal of the charge against Swatantar from the challan presented on September 27. He refused that there was pressure, and insisted, "There were protests over the books in Moga, so we arrested these men as a precautionary measure here. Our colleagues in Barnala did the same. It was a sensitive measure, so we treaded carefully."
Three days after some protests in Moga, the publishers and editors were arrested on September 15 on FIRs in Samana and Barnala. The text of the FIRs was similar, and there were allegations that the action was in fact a veiled attack on the editorial freedom of the publishers who are known to give space to diverse views.
The two books under question carried kavisharis (folk poetry) written by Babu Rajab Ali (1894-1979) and re-printed countless times since before Independence.
After the arrests, there were reiterations that historical texts carry caste words, even in apparently negative connotations. But scholars, including eminent Dalit writers, had underlined the sanctity and sociological importance of such texts.
'Exonerate non-Dalits too; the very case an atrocity'
Dalip Singh Pandhi, member of the Punjab State Commission for Scheduled Castes, welcomed the Punjab Police move of exonerating the two Dalit book editors of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, but demanded that the publishers and printer too be let-off as "the case has no legal basis".
"The move shows that the case, no matter what related IPC sections are applied, does not have merit. The books are reprints of a text that has never been banned. Where's the offence?" added Pandhi, who has written to the SC panel member-secretary, seeking a probe.
"An atrocity has been committed on the helpless poor and innocent by falsely registering a case against them," reads the letter, seeking action against the guilty. "It is a matter of grave concern."
"If the case does not stand, why were the publishers and editors jailed? This is a clear case of false implication and thus wrongful confinement," he told Hindustan Times.