The ‘Bharat Bandh’ is a protest that has impacted the daily lives of many people all across the nation. Chances are you have heard of the protests on the internet, the TV, the newspaper or have even born witness to it on the streets of India. One thing seems quite apparent: these acts of protest are getting out of hand with terrible incidents vandalism, violence and even killing, in the name of dissent.
However, these protests did not pop out of thin air. They stemmed from the Supreme Court’s verdict which in a sense, diluted the 1989 SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. To briefly explain this, the original Atrocity act intended prevent any form of atrocity against people of scheduled castes or scheduled tribes, be it verbal or physical.
Under the 1989 Act, victims of atrocity from SC/ST communities could lodge a complaint- and without any investigation- an FIR would be filed by the police, leading to the immediate arrest of those accused of committing the atrocity. Additionally, if a civil servant committed the offence, he would inevitably have to serve at least 1 year in jail.
While it was indeed made to protect people from discrimination and abuse on the basis of caste, this law has led to blatant abuse of the judiciary. There have been incidents where people- right from innocent civil servants to ordinary citizens- have been subject to severe scrutiny and born the brunt for crimes that they did not commit. In 2009, it had been reported that only 5 out of 45 cases were genuine.
What does that tell us?
Innocent citizens from middle class families had been wrongly accused due to personal disputes. There were numerous instances where certain people from SC/ST communities threatened those from “upper castes” of suing them wrongly under the atrocities act: some reported, some unreported.
Media houses such as Scroll, tell us that “it is against logic to say Dalits will file a false case”. Well firstly, this debate is not about whether they “will” or “won’t”. It is about whether there is a scope for misuse, even if it is in theory. Incidents have only shown us, that misuse is not just possible, but is likely to occur in anticipation of personal gains.
But still, even if one case in a thousand, involves the maltreatment of an innocent person pertaining to an oppressed caste, that person deserve justice and there is no doubt about that. Just like that, if even one person is being tortured for years by the police and the legal framework for no fault of his, he deserves justice. And therefore, no law must be extremely harsh on any one party. That is precisely what the Supreme Court did on the 20th of March. Justice Goel said:
“An innocent should not be punished. There should not be terror in society… We do not want any member of the SC/ST to be deprived of his rights. We only want an innocent not to be punished”
It was also claimed by the bench that this judgement is a “balance” between the right of an oppressed member of the SC/ST community and the right of an innocent man being falsely accused.
To summarise the court’s measures that were taken in order to ensure this balance, below are the three major actions in order to safeguard the rights:
- While before, the court was not permitted to grant anticipatory bail (where the accused can seek bail in anticipation of an arrest after committing a non-bailable offence) even if the complaint seemed false, they can now do that. Therefore, if the complaint seems false prima facie, anticipatory bail can be granted by the court.
- Previously, the police had to register an FIR and arrest the accused as soon as the complaint was lodged. However, now the police cannot arrest without conducting a preliminary inquiry in order to determine the facts of the case.
- While originally, civil servants had to be jailed for at least one year if they committed the crime: now, the arrest requires the approval of the appointing officer.
However, the opposition parties have unanimously opposed this dilution of the SC/ST Atrocities Act. In fact, Rahul Gandhi claims:
“The SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act has been diluted…On the one hand, atrocities on the Dalits and Adivasis increasing and the act is being weakened”
Note here, that the punishability of the offence remains the same with absolutely no change. And so, a person abusing a Dalit will face the law just as severely as normal. Mr. Gandhi must realise that the process of investigation now, is much more comprehensive and infallible. Thus, the increase in thoroughness, cannot be branded as “weakening” the Act. It in fact strengthens the capability of the act, and reduces societal pressure and pointing fingers at Dalits for “wrongly accusing”.
The opposition even accuses the BJP government of being a part of this decision, if not anchoring it.
One would be fairly intrigued by the BJP’s stance. They completely distance themselves from the judgement, claiming they have had nothing to do with the judicial process. Trying to dissociate oneself from a judgement, by nature sends a message that they do not agree with it. What makes their clashing stance against the judgement abundantly clear, is the fact that they even filed a review petition against the court, asking them to reconsider it.
A large section of the mainstream media too, pretends as though the judgement is somehow wrong and oppressive to Dalits and they keep blaming the BJP for the verdict. However, all we see the BJP doing in response, is claiming that they have nothing to do with the judgement; but never really challenging the opposition’s narrative by supporting the court’s balanced judgement.
A neutral observer would wonder why the government and the RSS adopt such a defensive stance, by disconnecting themselves from the judgement. Ideologically speaking, this is the sort of ruling that they generally seem to favour. However, we must also bear in mind, that the two institutions have regretted taking a blunt stance before the elections in the past. A fairly recent example was in Bihar, where they had lost an election after fierce controversy due to RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement, stating a necessity for rethinking the quota system prevalent in India; naturally, other parties did not let it go and constantly portrayed the BJP as “anti OBC”, which arguably cost them the elections.
Therefore, the bigger question is, does the government fear a creation of false perception? Do they worry about being maligned just before the elections? Are they afraid of being painted as “anti-Dalit” for siding a judgement that works in the interest of fairness to all segments of this nation?
The opposition and a large section of the mainstream media has pronounced the judgement to be anti-Dalit. But let us rethink that. Because the moment, we the people, call the judgement “discriminatory”, parties too will hesitate to side it in the fear of loss. But if we are vocal in support of the judgement, we give the government and other institutions, the boldness to stand for every single citizen of this nation: be it a Brahmin or a Dalit.