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Former untouchables, contemporary invisibles: Why the SC/ST Act matters, and why the Supreme Court needs to ensure justice

The SC has pulled a balancing act before with empowering laws. It needs only to look at dowry if it wants to ensure justice with the SC/ST Act.

Updated: Jun 29, 2018, 22:37 PM IST

When India's urbane drawing-room pundits are done with laughing at WhatsApp jokes on Mayawati's appearance, haughtiness, idiosyncrasies and yes, caste, it is time for them to ask themselves a soul-searching question: Why did India's most populous state elect her as the chief minister, and why is she still relevant? Her subsequent electoral defeat is a fact, but you cannot wish her or the Dalits of India away, as this week's events are showing.

Monday saw a Bharat Bandh that resulted in the death of at least 10 people as those representing the lowliest group of India's undeniable rural social hierarchy protested against a Supreme Court order that allowed bail for those accused of atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Constitutional name for Dalits and Adivasis. That morning's papers hardly announced the event on their front pages, probably because no major opposition party led the protests or made loud announcements.

The Times of India did not mention it at all on the front page, The Indian Express linked it incidentally on a story about the SC ruling, and The Hindu, which usually espouses Dalit issues, had a small item about Punjab readying for what turned out to be a pan-Indian affair. Evidently, the former untouchables are also contemporary invisibles, until a few deaths happen or Dalit protests block air-conditioned sedans on their way to spas.

The Supreme Court, post-haste, has begun hearings afresh on the anti-atrocity law, a clearly complex issue. "We are not against the Act. The innocent should not be punished," the Court said.

There is a puzzle to solve when the presumption of innocence, one of the tenets of a modern democracy, is pitted against everyday atrocities that stem from a centuries-old social order. It gets trickier when judges are themselves accused of caste bias, threatening the foundations of a democracy and making us wonder: Is integrity a function of one's birth?

Yet, there are strong reasons to believe that the Dalits have a strong case, something that fancy metropolitan citizens dissing Dalit politics as anti-merit or vote-bank stuff will not easily understand. This is mainly because they do not feel enough compassion for the people who even now toil in the villages, mostly as landless labourers or as workers who do menial, unhygienic tasks. 

Caste may be invisible from high-rise balconies, but it is a hard rural reality, as two news items appearing in the week following the Supreme Court ruling showed. In Gujarat, a Dalit youth was killed - yes, KILLED - because he dared to ride a horse - a symbol of prominence in a rural landscape. The horse-rider allegedly wounded the traditional pride of upper caste kshatriyas.

Is it any wonder that Mayawati erected a controversial Rs 685-crore Dalit Prerna Sthal (Dalit Inspiration Place) in Noida, just a stone's throw away from software centres writing fancy software for the next generation microchips? The upright, shiny statues of Mayawati herself, her mentor Kanshi Ram and their guru Babasaheb Ambedkar represent for Dalits a vision of uprightness that carries through whispers and nudges to villages across India. It is true that Dalit protesters ride scooters and wear jeans, but they speak for millions, just as a Martin Luther King Jr sporting a well-cut suit spoke for America's toiling blacks. 

Elsewhere in Yogi Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh, a would-be bride and her groom, both Dalits from the Jatav community, have faced a unique problem. They cannot take their wedding procession through an upper-caste Thakur area, because that requires a special permit from the authorities that is not quite forthcoming. Hathras district, where the village is located, is not far from Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, the biggest object of India's touristy pride. The Allahabad High Court has been hearing the case mired in technical objections on the baraat route.

We do know by now that villages of UP and Haryana have their own khaps (village councils) that uphold ancient hierarchal practices of rule-making. Days after its controversial order on the Dalit protection law, the same Supreme Court ruled, 70 years after Independence, that khap panchayats cannot stop a marriage between consenting adults. 

Urban citizens are outraged when women face discrimination in khaps, but they do not extend the same courtesy to the Dalits. The old untouchables, like I said, are the new invisibles.

Yes, it is true that we have a Dalit president now and have had one before. Yes, it is true that there is now a Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry. But that does not take away the fact that India's village hierarchies are substantially untouched by modern ways, be it in khap rulings or in atrocities against Dalits.

What is the way out? The Supreme Court will have its own mind, aided by widespread political support from parties that value Dalits for their votes, if not for other things. One way out could be fast-track hearings on Dalit cases by special panels that can give prima-facie orders based on the facts in each case. Bail is ordinarily denied because there could be a miscarriage of justice otherwise. With Dalits being stopped from riding horses or holding wedding processions in rural areas in the 21st Century, there is reason to believe that the only way to juggle the principle of presumption of innocence with justice for the oppressed would be to have an inspired quasi-judicial structure. 

It is important to note that provisions of the anti-dowry laws have been misused to harass men through false cases. Only last year, the Supreme Court issued guidelines to stop the misuse of the anti-dowry Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code through the formation of family welfare committees. A similar set of guidelines or panels with significant outreach into rural areas may be necessary to balance the interest of justice for Dalits with the presumption of innocence. Much blood has been spilled already.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)