Calling a Dalit person publicly by the name of his or her caste, stopping a Dalit or a tribal person from entering a temple or even forcing them to vote in favour of a particular candidate will soon land the perpetrator behind bars.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2014 became one of the few pieces of legislation to buck the deadlock in Parliament when the Rajya Sabha passed it on Monday.
The bill, earlier passed by the Lok Sabha, is touted as a major step to curb crime against Dalits and tribals in a country where atrocities against these the vulnerable sections frequently hit the headlines.
Recently, the Uttar Pradesh government ordered a CBI probe into the murder of two Dalit sisters in Badaun. Last month, a video clip went viral showing how a Dalit family was stripped and beaten by villagers in front of the UP police.
The bill identifies a wide list of illegal activities that would be no longer permissible, especially against Dalits and tribals, toughens the penal provisions , and provides for the setting up of special courts to fast-track cases under the proposed law.
It also makes wrongfully occupying land belonging to SCs/STs or garlanding them with footwear strictly punishable. SCs and STs can’t be compelled to dispose or carry human or animal carcasses or do manual scavenging either.
The proposed amendments to the law come at a time when there is a rise in crimes against Dalits. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics, recorded cases of crimes committed against Dalits are have spiked since 2009. But the existing law to prevent atrocities against SC/STs had been of limited help with 84.1% of cases under the act pending till two years ago.
The proposed law tries to plug these loopholes. The new bill says, “the court shall presume that the accused was aware of the caste or tribal identity of the victim if the accused had personal knowledge of the victim or his family,” said a note on the bill prepared by PRS Legislative Research.
The bill also aims to provide more protection to the SC/ST women. Intentionally touching an SC or ST woman, dedicating them as a devadasi and using words, acts or gestures of a sexual nature are proposed to be punishable.
The UPA government too, had brought a similar law through an ordinance in March 2014, weeks before the Lok Sabha polls kick started. But, the UPA lost and the ordinance lapsed.
The NDA’s law is almost the same version as of the UPA, was introduced in parliament by social justice and empowerment minister Thaawar Chand Gehlot on July 16, 2014.
While the bill has been widely welcomed by all parties, observers also feel there should be enough safeguards to prevent misuse of the stringent law.