Millions of Indians recently celebrated India's 69th Independence Day. Yet, more than 200 million Indians are yet to attain their independence. Independence from discrimination, independence from indignity and independence from atrocities. More than 200 million Dalits and Adivasis in India are still awaiting their independence from India's apartheid.
Over the past year, the Dalits in India have been witness to an extraordinary spectacle. The erstwhile outcasts and untouchables were suddenly the toast of political parties of all hues and the Indian political discourse suddenly rediscovered Dr Ambedkar, elevating him from a footnote in civics textbooks to a national icon. Astonishingly, even those who opposed Dr Ambedkar in principle as well as in practice now suddenly could not get enough of him and his teachings. While this masquerading was on in full swing, Dalits were being mowed down under tractors in Rajasthan, young men were being killed in Maharashtra for using a song about Dr Ambedkar as a ringtone and Dalit women were being paraded naked in Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps the most telling instance of the deep prejudice against Dalits was when two boys from Uttar Pradesh beat all odds to clear the IIT entrance exams: they were felicitated by the Chief Minister in the morning and stoned by fellow villagers in the evening -- simply because the upper caste communities couldn't bear the thought of being outperformed by children of a lower caste. This is India's apartheid.
"[O]ver the decades, the cases of atrocities against Scheduled Castes and have risen steadily."
In his reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on 11 August, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Vijay Sampla said that the NCSC (National Commission for Scheduled Castes) offices located across the country till May this year received 9405 cases regarding atrocities against SCs. What makes these statistics even more alarming is the fact that over the decades, the cases of atrocities against Scheduled Castes and have risen steadily. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 14,318 crimes were committed against SCs in 1981; the number increased to 17,646 in 1991, 33,501 in 2001 and 33,719 in 2011. The total number of reported cases of SCs being murdered by non-SCs also rose from 493 in 1981 to 673 in 2011. A similar rising trend is evident in rape cases as well.
It was in acknowledgement of this grave social problem of atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis that the Constitution provided for special steps for their economic development and social amelioration. In the 1970s, the Special Component Plan for the Dalits and the Tribal Sub Plan for the tribal communities were formulated by the MHA. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, amended and tightened the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955. In 1989 the SCs/STs (PoA) Act was enacted at the time of the Congress government led by late Rajiv Gandhi. These legal and constitutional provisions were meant not only to prevent but also to eliminate a host of atrocities committed against SCs and STs. However, despite deterrent effect of these provisions, especially the POA Act, legal justice has remained out of reach for the majority of victims largely because of poor implementation of the Act. Victims confront hurdles at every stage of the legal process -- from registration, investigation and charge sheeting, to the trial stage. The conviction rates under the Act remain disproportionately low at just 22.8% in 2013 and a pendency rate of 84.1%, especially when compared to the conviction rate for general crimes under the Indian Penal Code that is nearly double at 40.2%
So, what is the reason for this centuries-old apartheid in India? Can we simply blame it on the caste system or are there other reasons? Can India ever attain true freedom for one-fifth of its citizens?
The 28th report of the Commissioner for SCs and STs (1986) provides some valuable insights. According to the report the primary causes for such atrocities are as follows:
1. Unresolved disputes over allotment of government land or distribution of surplus land.
2. Tension over non-payment or underpayment of minimum wages.
3. Backlash against increasing awareness among SC/STs of their rights and privileges under the Constitution and other laws.
In the report, the Commission further emphasised the importance of a responsive police administration. The report pointed out that the Dalits and Adivasis who were handicapped by the evils of poverty, illiteracy and lack of information regarding legal recourse available to them, will never be able to realise the benefits from the law if the police administration itself remained apathetic to their cause. The National Police Commission (NPC) in its report (1979-81) examined the police role in the implementation of social legislations. It noted that the police as presently constituted did not possess the required social sensitivity to undertake the delicate task of implementing such legislation.
"[T]he politics of independent India have been marked by apathy towards the plight of the Dalits by mainstream national parties or of opportunism by regional Dalit parties -- without any resulting reforms for the Dalits."
The police in the present system are trained only for tasks related to the management of public order and the investigation of crimes under the IPC and other criminal laws. Further, the police personnel themselves are a product of the same caste biases that are at the root of caste-based violence. Hence a key reform required is the need for special selection of officers responsible for implementing social legislations, coupled with specialised training for effective implementation of social legislations like the PCR Act and the SCs and STs (POA) Act, 1989. The apathy, negligence and passivity of the police extend to other agencies of government and the district civil and judicial administration as well. Therefore, similar reforms are required for these officials as well. Until this is done and officers in charge of handling such crimes are held stringently accountable, mere legislation may not be able to reduce the incidence of atrocities.
We also need to realise that laws operate in a given social and political environment, which reflects the relative position of various interests in society. Until recently the politics of independent India have been marked by apathy towards the plight of the Dalits by mainstream national parties or of opportunism by regional Dalit parties -- without any resulting reforms for the Dalits. Thus it is key that in the current political environment, where every political formation wants to be seen as pro-Dalit, the Dalits themselves do not miss this historical opportunity to press for pending and stalled reforms like provisions for police, civil and judicial accountability in the POA Act, grant of pending land rights under the Ceilings Act, reducing rate of pendency and increase in rate of conviction in atrocity cases etc.
As we advance towards the 70th year of our Independence, let us all take a pledge to end India's apartheid and fight for the true freedom of the more than 200 million Dalits and Adivasis that we've left behind for so long.