The constitutional commitment of equality, liberty, justice and dignity to all Indian citizens is the expression of our vision of building a nation without any discrimination including deep-rooted discrimination based on caste. In the past 68 years of independence, this commitment made in the Preamble has been translated into action through various public policies to abolish discrimination. Yet caste discrimination remains a widespread phenomenon throughout India. The cruelest outcome of caste discrimination against Dalits and Adivasis is the physical violence against them by socially advantaged caste groups in India. Recognizing such crimes and vulnerability of Dalits and Adivasis, the government of India enacted ‘The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act’ in 1989 (PoA Act) to deter such violence and ensure justice and protection to them. However, its implementation remains very weak and the vulnerability of SCs and STs has barely improved. Dalit rights organizations and various other public institutions indicated towards non-implementation of the law, in-effectiveness of law to deter commonly committed caste base atrocities, lack of statutory arrangements in the states, corruption in police system and influence of caste system in public institutions. Considering all these loopholes in the Act, it has been demanded by various stakeholders to amend this law in order to ensure higher protection of victims and prevent caste-based atrocities. UPA-II government in the end of its tenure brought an ordinance to amend the PoA Act in March 2014. The newly formed NDA government introduced ‘The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2014 in the Lok Sabha to replace the ordinance.
The Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) together accounts around one fourth of Indian population. Caste system deprives this entire section of population from enjoying a life as it is articulated in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution. Practices of the caste system such as untouchability and discrimination many times lead to the gross physical atrocities. The literature on atrocities shows that it is an all-India phenomenon legitimized by same principle of caste hierarchy. Government of India enacted The Untouchability (Offences) Act in 1955 to abolish practices of untouchability and protect rights of individual. Even after this legislative mechanism, frequency of atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis remain unchanged. Under the pressure from Dalit Members of Parliament (MPs), the Government of India started monitoring atrocities against SCs from 1974 and in the case of STs from 1981 onwards, with special focus on murder, rape, arson and grievous hurt.
The caste system is so deeply rooted in Indian society that mere monitoring of atrocities and enacting a law to abolish untouchability did not result into betterment of Adivasis and Dalits. The socially and culturally legitimized caste system leads to the complex manifestations such as discrimination, untouchability, atrocity on vulnerable sections of the society. The enactment of PoA Act in 1989 as a special law recognized complexity of caste base atrocities and higher vulnerability of victims. This special law treats various IPC and other offences against STs and SCs by any non ST and SC member in a different manner. It prescribes stronger punishment and provides protection to the victims. The Act states that, “despite various measures to improve the socio-economic conditions of SCs and STs, they remain vulnerable. They are denied a number of civil rights; they are subjected to various offences, indignities, humiliations and harassment. They have, in several brutal incidents, been deprived of their life and property. Serious atrocities are committed against them for various historical, social and economic reasons .”
Implementation of the Act
During two decades of its implementation the PoA Act ensured justice, protection and rehabilitation for thousands of victims of caste atrocities. . It also helped to generate awareness around basic human rights. Dalits and Adivasis have utilized this law to assert their rights and due share in society. However, various obstacles have been identified in its smooth implementation and delivering justice to the victims. According to a NHRC report on Status of Implementation of SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, police resort to various machinations to discourage SCs/STs from registering cases, to dilute the seriousness of the violence and to shield the accused persons from arrest and prosecution. FIRs are often registered under the Protection of Civil Right Act and IPC provision, which attract lesser punishment than PoA Act provision for the same offence.
The National Coalition for Strengthening SC & ST Prevention of Atrocity Act (a network of civil society organization and Dalit activists) identified following major deficiencies of the Act and its implementation :
· Under reporting of the cases under the Act and deterred from making complaints of atrocities.
· Deliberately not registering cases under appropriate sections of the Act.
· Delay in filing charge sheet
· Not arresting accused and the ones who are arrested are invariably released on bail.
· Filing false and counter cases against Dalit victims by accused.
· Compensation prescribed under the Act 16 is invariably not paid.
· Victims have no access to legal aid.
· Non-implementation of statutory provisions in various States under the Act and Rule, 1995.
According to the data of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, majority of states do not fulfill minimum statutory provisions as per the Act, 1989 and Rules, 1995. Following table shows the status of non-implementation of the provisions of SCs and STs (PoA) Act, 1989 and Rules 1995 by State Governments.
Although there is provision in the PoA Act for the constitution of Special Courts to expeditiously try atrocity cases, in reality what SCs/STs experience is a huge pendency of their cases before the trial courts. Moreover, the conviction rate is very low. In fact, the conviction rate under the PoA Act is found to be much lower than in cases booked under IPC. According to the NCRB data, in 2013 the average conviction rate for crimes against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes stood at 23.8% and 16.4% respectively as compared to overall conviction rate of 40.2% relating to IPC cases and 90.9% relating to SLL (Special and Local Law) cases. The processing of reported cases for investigation and trail is very slow. According to the NCRB data, 35645 cases are pending in different courts for trial. Large numbers of cases are pending in States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Gujarat and Karnataka.
The National Advisory Council (NAC) during UPA government reviewed the provisions of law and cases of atrocities and found that certain forms of atrocities, though well documented, are not covered by the Act. NAC recommended for the incorporation of various IPC offences and other commonly committed offences under the perview of this law to ensure wider protection to the victims of caste atrocities. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) and Justice Punnaiah Commission critically examined deficiencies of the Act and has suggested various amendments to the Act. Human rights organizations have also highlighted various gaps in the enforcement of the Act and Rules. Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and Ministry of Home Affairs have issued various advisories to State governments to fill the gaps in the enforcement.
Status of Atrocities:
The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data further exposes the poor implementation of the Act and its minimal impact in effectively dealing with caste based atrocities. The data reveals that the number and frequency of crime against SCs and STs are continuously increasing. The prevalent atrocities against SCs and STs includes incidents such as making SCs eat human excreta, and subjecting both SCs and STs to physical assaults, grievous hurt, arson, mass killings and rapes of SC/ST women, etc. Although the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) provides useful data that reveal the extent of atrocities committed against the SCs/STs, these data do not fully reflect the ground reality as most of the cases go unreported due to reluctance by police to register atrocity cases for various reasons. One also finds caste bias and corruption among the police force preventing registration and investigation of cases.
Even after low rate of reporting of crime under PoA Act, incidences of crime under this Act has increased from 11602 incidences in 2008 to 13975 incidences in 2013. The incidences of rape have shockingly increased from 1457 in 2008 to 2073 in 2013 (an increase of 42.27%). There has been no mitigation with annual average of crimes registered against SCs/ST standing at 39408 and daily average being 108.
Proposed Amendments in PoA Act, 1989:
The literature and empirical data on caste atrocities reveals that it made nominal impact in the lives of SCs and STs. However, various assessment of the law reveals that it has created a sense of security and protection among the victims of the caste atrocity. Dalit and Adivasi victims have used it as a tool to assert their basic rights and combat with wrong social and cultural practices. The current situation of atrocities and status of cases pending in police station and in courts led stakeholder to advocate for amendment in the PoA Act, 1989.
The Scheduled Castes and The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2014 introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 16, 2014 that replaces ordinance enacted by UPA government in March 2014 represents the consensus of stakeholders to amend the law for better results.
The amendment Bill proposes substantial changes in the chapter on ‘Offences of Atrocities’ (Chapter-II) of the Principal Act. The proposed amendments attempts to increase number of IPC offences under the preview of this act. It also recognizes commonly practiced action in society to insult and harm dignity of person from SC and ST community as an offence. These offences are garlanding with footwear, compelling to dispose or carry human or animal carcasses, manual scavenging, attempting to promote feeling of ill-will against SCs or STs, imposing or threatening a social or economic boycott. The amendments in this chapter further specify duties of public servant in detail and prescribe punishment in case of any neglect of duty by the public servant. The common duties of public servant includes registration of FIR, furnishing a copy of information recorded by the informant in police station, to record statements of victims or witnesses, conduct investigation, file charge sheet within six days and keep records of document.
Addressing issue of long pendency of cases and low conviction rate under the Act, the amendment Bill proposes constitution of Exclusive Special Court and Special Courts to dispose cases within given time-frame. The provision in the bill ensures adequate number of courts so that every case can be disposed within the period of two months from the date of filling of the charge sheet. The bill has inserted a new chapter namely ‘Chapter IVA’ in the principal Act, that describes the rights of victims and witnesses in detail. Some of the crucial rights of victims and witnesses are as follows:
· Right of victims, their dependents and witnesses to access state’s support for their protection against any kind of violence, threats, coercion, inducement and intimidation.
· Right of victims to access special support from government, that arises because of their age, gender, educational disadvantage and poverty.
· Right of hearing views of victims at any proceeding under this Act in respect of bail, discharge, release, parole, conviction or sentence of an accused.
· Right of victims, their dependents, informants and witnesses to access facilities of relocation, rehabilitation and maintenance during investigation, inquiry and trail of the case.
· Right to access information about trial, enquiry and trial such as recorded FIR and provision of laws and allied schemes of relief for victims, their relatives.
· Right to access relief in cash or kind.
· Right of atrocity victims and their dependents to take assistance from Non-Government Organizations, social workers and advocates.
Soon after the introduction of the amendment Bill in the Parliament, the Lok Sabha Speaker referred the Bill to the Parliamentary standing committee for further deliberation.
The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2014 introduced in budget session 2014-15 replaces ordinance brought in by UPA-II government in March 2014. The proposed amendments in the principal act comprehensively addresses issues of non-implementation, in-effectiveness and number of loopholes in the existing law as highlighted by various human rights organizations, Dalit activists and public institutions. The amendments in the Act will ensure wider protection and timely justice to the victims of caste atrocities. It has already been delayed for so many reasons, but now it is up to the Parliament and political parties to understand the urgency of the amendment Bill to provide relief to the SCs and STs who constitute almost one forth of Indian population.