The UPA government is set to toughen a key law that protects India’s Dalits against discrimination by introducing several new provisions which will criminalise acts, such as denying them access to temples and forcing them to quit elections.
The Social Justice and Empowerment ministry is likely to move the cabinet shortly to get the proposed amendments to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 approved. This is the first time the Act is being amended.
The proposed changes while strengthening some of the existing provisions of the Act have added a number of new offences against SC/ST are not covered in the existing law.
As per the law, preventing SC/STs from filing nomination for polls or forcing them to withdraw nomination would be a punishable offence with up to five years in jail. Under the existing law only denial of voting rights of SC/ST was considered an offence.
Imposing social or economic boycott on SC/STs, obstructing use of common property resources, forcible tonsuring of head and garlanding with footwear have been added as new offences.
Though the Act has been in place since 1989, there has been hardly any let up in crime against SC/STs. “It was poorly implemented. The Sonia Gandhi chaired National Advisory Council had given a host of recommendations to strengthen the Act. A majority of NAC’s suggestions have been accepted,” said an official.
One such crucial change that has been accepted proposes that mere knowledge of a victim’s SC/ST identity can be enough to prove the perpetrator’s guilt. Currently, failure to prove SC/ST identity was the reason for committing the offence has often aided the perpetrators acquittal by the court.