The Bharat Bandh, called by several Dalit groups on Monday against the Supreme Court ruling on the misuse of Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, has proved to be dangerous and retrograde. It is dangerous because not only because the violence that it engendered, leaving nine dead and dozens wounded, but also because it has the potential of further dividing the society. Infinitely worse, however, is the further perversion of public debate.
On March 20, the Supreme Court had diluted the stringent provisions under the SC/ST Act, which were misused mostly by the people from the supposedly higher castes. Despite nationwide violent protests against its ruling, the court on Tuesday stuck to its March 20 order. The SC, however, agreed to reconsider it after 10 days.
Intended to check crimes against people belonging to SCs and STs, the SC/ST Act bestows special protections and rights to victims, constitutes courts for quick completion of cases, bars the grant of anticipatory bail to the accused, and provides for the immediate arrest of the erring public servants. Its abuse has been rampant. For instance, it deterred senior government officers from writing adverse remarks against SC/ST employees for fear of being booked under it.
"The court also relied on data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau which showed that in 2015, nearly 16 per cent of the cases ended with closure reports being filed and over 75 per cent ended either in acquittal or withdrawal," India Today reported. "Pointing out that there was a large-scale misuse of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the court has held that an arrest is not mandatory under the SC/ST Act, and the automatic arrest has been scrapped."
Typically, the apex court's balanced and sagacious ruling has been just water off a duck's back as far as the political class and activists are concerned. Nobody is willing to ponder over the ruling, and everybody is busy screaming against it. The Narendra Modi government is against the order. Almost the entire Opposition - shattered and scattered as it is - supported the bandh in order to embarrass the Bharatiya Janata Party. Various groups like the Prakash Ambedkar-led Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh, the Peasants & Workers Party, the CPM-affiliated Centre of Indian Trade Unions, the Rashtriya Seva Dal, the Jati Aant Sangharsh Samiti, and National Dalit Movement for Justice also did the same.
On its part, the government pleaded with Supreme Court to review its decision, lest it should be seen as anti-Dalit. The court was not moved by the government's politically-motivated arguments. "We have not diluted any provision of SC/ST Act and only safeguarded interest of innocents from being arrested. Provisions of the Act cannot be used to terrorize the innocents," the court said, adding, "The SC/ST Act is a substantive law and we have just asked that implementation of it would require adherence to procedural law as given in criminal procedure code."
The SC should be lauded for its sagacity and firmness, but that has not happened. For instance, former additional solicitor general Indira Jaising, who held the post during UPA-2, went on to accuse SC judges of "upper caste," alleging that the SC/ST Act has been diluted to "protect Brahmins." This because they dared to safeguard the citizens from some harsh legal provisions! And this about the highest court of the land which, in general, has guarded the rights of individuals irrespective of the caste, creed, class, and community.
If gold rusts, what will iron do? If educated, articulate people like Jaising stoop to such level to sound politically correct, what can we expected from the crasser politicians? Usually, they scream; now they'll scream louder. In a country where sloganeering is confused with eloquence and platitudes with wisdom, it is hardly surprising that shouting passes off as the cry of the long-suffering, silent majority. Needless to say, nobody bothers to examine the authenticity of any cry: a cry, by virtue of being a cry, is always authentic. Or, so it is believed.
What gets lost in shouting bouts between warring politicians and activists is the real issue. In this case, it is the atrocities against and justice for Dalits. Legally speaking, there is no discrimination; on the contrary, there is reverse discrimination in their favour - eg, in getting government jobs. In practice, however, Dalits do suffer in every possible manner. Since the problem is not in the law, the solution too can't be found in the law, certainly not in draconian legal provisions.
There is no contradiction between punishing the tormentors of Dalits and safeguarding the rights of innocent people. Solutions can surely be found, but that presupposes civilized interaction between various stakeholders and healthy public discourse. They must reasonably, for the sleep of reason, the 18th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya said, produces monsters.
Unfortunately, the reactions of political parties, activists, and intellectuals like Jaising do nothing to create a climate of opinion conducive for any meaningful interface and dialogue.
(Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a journalist and author. He has spent around 25 years in the media. As a freelance journalist, Kapoor has written for a number of leading publications. He has written four books on Indian politics and its associated institutions.)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)