SC/ST Act is like an umbrella, it ensures we are safe, say Mirchpur Dalits
Gulab Singh, 80, is frail and bent with age. He hobbles around with a wooden stick at the makeshift camp he lives in, outside Haryana’s Hisar city. But on April 2, defying his body and age, he marched with thousands of others for the Bharat Bandh called by Dalit groups. The nationwide protest was called in the wake of a Supreme Court order which put checks on arrests under the Scheduled Caste and Tribe Act (SC/ST Act), citing its misuse.
“We are alive due to the Act. If they take it away, do you think they [upper-castes] will spare us?” he asks. Singh is a beneficiary of the Act that won him victory in court, but is angry, because the battle for social justice is far from over. He and other Dalit families may never return to the village of Mirchpur, which has always been home.
On April 21, 2010, 18 Dalit houses, including his, were attacked by the Jats in Mirchpur, following an altercation over a barking dog. While Singh survived, his neighbour, 70-year-old Tara Chand, and his disabled teenage daughter, Suman, lost their lives in the blaze. Unlike several other high-profile cases of caste violence —in which trials have dragged on for years and resulted in acquittals —the Mirchpur case went to trial in a few months, and a judgment the following year, convicted 15 Jats of the village.
Singh’s witness testimony formed a crucial part of the case in court. But seven years after their hard-fought legal victory, the Mirchpur Dalits were forced to take to the streets once again – this time to fight for the very Act that had been instrumental in delivering them justice.
According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 130 SC/ST atrocity cases were registered every day across the country in 2016. While the Act has made it easier for the victims to register cases, it has not guaranteed justice. Only a fourth of the total cases ended in convictions while pendency was at 88%.
Ramesh Nathan, general secretary, National Dalit Movement for Justice, a group which monitors atrocity cases across the country, points to the reasons for poor conviction rates. “Poor police investigations are a big factor. Chargesheets are delayed, which often means victims and witnesses get threatened, weakening the cases. This is being interpreted as false or fake cases.”
The data too does not suggest widespread abuse. Of the total cases registered in 2016, 15% were found to be ‘false’ or ended due to ‘mistake of fact/law’. The police filed chargesheets in 80% of the cases suggesting prima facie evidence.
Satyawan Singh, 38, nephew of the deceased, Tara Chand, was instrumental in organising the survivors for the legal battle. He says, “We had to fight so hard to get a conviction in court despite the Act so we need to stand for it now.”
He describes the ordeal that the Dalits faced in the aftermath of the violence. Almost 250 Dalit families fled Mirchpur, spending a month and a half sitting on a dharna outside the secretariat. After administrative assurances of justice and security, they went back to the village. “We had barely gone back that the pressure started building to withdraw the case. One night, two cars full of Jats went around our basti, making threatening announcements. We left after three days,” he says.
From there, the families trekked 150 kilometres to Delhi, staying at a Valmiki Mandir near Panchkuian road. After two months, they made another attempt to go back home. But the pressure from the Jats forced them out once more.
After months of being homeless, most of the Dalit families settled on a patch of land on the outskirts of Hisar, loaned to them by a social activist. They have been living here ever since. Only 50 families, who could not afford to lose their village livelihood, went back to Mirchpur.
Satyawan’s nephew, Sanjay Valmiki, a 28-year-old driver, says the Bharat Bandh protests got a massive response, especially among the Dalit youth. “After the SC decision, we organised meetings in all nearby villages. Everywhere we went, the people were very angry. Diluting the Act is a direct attack on our safety.”
The impact of the nationwide protests can already be felt both nationally and locally. On the backfoot, the Centre filed a review petition in court which is now being heard. In Haryana, the longstanding demand for rehabilitation by the Mirchpur Dalits was accepted by the state government last week. After eight years of living under a tarpaulin tent, the families will now be given land and financial help to build houses at Dhandhur village – an hour away from their original homes.
This is also being welcomed by the Dalit families that had continued living in Mirchpur. Last year, in a nightmarish re-run of the events of 2010, a Dalit teenager, Shiv Kumar, was beaten and abused by Jat boys for winning village athletic races. His father, Ajmer Singh, says, “Due to the favourable judgment in the 2010 case, this time things didn’t go out of hand.”
Pointing to a filthy kuchcha lane over-run with sewage, in front of his house, he adds, “This is the border. We live like people do on the Indo-Pakistan border.”
The same road further ahead is inhabited by the Jats. Each of the Jat houses in that stretch has had men arrested, accused or convicted for the 2010 attack. Rajinder Palli, 39, serving life sentence is currently out on parole. Maintaining his innocence, he says, “The Dalits get their way but no one listens to us. They have power as they have more votes than Jats.”
His neighbour, 45-year-old Suresh Kumar, spent 17 months in jail before being acquitted by the court. Disabled in one foot, he walks around with a crutch. “Being in jail was very tough for me. Each second was hell. I was innocent and yet I spent so much time in jail. I’m happy that SC has recognised that this Act is misused,” he says. Data on arrests from NCRB, in fact, shows that more than 85% people arrested were eventually chargesheeted in 2016.
It is this sentiment that makes life untenable for the remaining Dalits in the village. The victory in court has deepened the fault line. Says Ajmer Singh, “We don’t want to take any more chances and will move out soon, now that the government is ready to relocate us.”
While the elder members are resigned to leaving their homes, the younger Dalits realise that moving is a short-term solution. Amit Singh, 23, who is an unemployed, interrupts Ajmer. “Caste violence will not end even if we go away. We have to fight to save the Act.”
Another man next to him chips in, “The Act is like an umbrella that ensures we are safe. If it is taken away, we will become slaves again.”