Bharat bandh: Dalit protests triggered by charge of law misuse | Opinion
The Supreme Court decision alleging rampant misuse of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act as an instrument to blackmail or wreak personal vengeance has immensely hurt the feeling of Dalits, who are subject to what the Supreme Court once described as “rarest of the rare violence”. The court also allowed anticipatory bail for the accused in certain cases, mandated prior sanction by a superior officer before the arrest of an accused, and brought in a provision for a preliminary inquiry.
Dalits are not hurt as much by the decision, as by the allegation of misuse. This is what provoked massive protests by them all over the country on Monday. It is important to take into account facts related to the theory of misuse and the economic and demographic context of the atrocities. Are Dalits in rural areas, where most of the atrocities happen, economically and demographically in a position to file false complaints and take on the mighty high castes? Dr BR Ambedkar, back in 1947, summarily rejected the theory that the law could be misused . He argued that in terms of economic strength, Dalits depend for their livelihood on the land-owning high castes that are demographically in majority. Poor economic strength and fewer numbers did not allow Dalits to do anything that would antagonise the high castes. Evidence shows that efforts by Dalits have been crushed by the higher castes through social and economic boycott. So how can Dalits misuse the act?
Even under the current provisions of the act, the average number of cases every year between 2013 and 2016 came to around 40,000. Between 2010 and 2016, of the cases in which trial was completed, a big majority ended in acquittals. If conviction rates are taken as a proportion of the total cases that came up for trial in each year, the figures were even more dismal. For instance, in 2016, only 1.4% of all crimes against scheduled castes that came up for trial ended in convictions; for scheduled tribes , the percentage was 0.8%.
Why is the conviction rate so low? The standing committee of the ministry of social justice and empowerment, which toured the country during the amendment of the act in 2015 attributed 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 loopholes included delays in the filing of the FIR,not conducting inquiries on the spot ,the appointment of officers below the required ranks, avoiding registration of the cases under proper provisions of the Act , among others.It is because of these reasons that the original 1989 act was made more stringent in 2015.
Therefore what the decision of the Supreme Court may do is give more time and freedom to make cases weak. The government should contest the decision in the Supreme Court.
(Thorat is Professor Emeritus, JNU)