India's Dalit Protest Dilution of Act Protecting Them Against Class Crimes — CANVAS

Photo: The Supreme Court’s ruling sparked country-wide protests this week. (BBC)

Thousands took to the streets this week after a Supreme Court ruling weakened the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, which had afforded protections to Dalit against the abuses of power by authorities. The Dalit are in the lowest caste in India, marginalized by society and frequent victims of attacks. The protests had been intended to be peaceful, branded as “bandh” or shutdown, and much of the protest was nonviolent, consisting of sit-ins and gatherings. Some were not, however, and many politicians have called for peace in the streets. Leaders of political parties have expressed solidarity with the Dalit and their grievances, but condemn the violence of the protests.

The act was instituted nearly two decades ago, as a new and improved version of the Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1955 that had fallen short of successfully protecting the Dalit from atrocities. Parliament therefore passed the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in order to emphasize a commitment to the safety of the Dalit. It distinguishes that the perpetrator must be a non-member of the Dalit, and the victim must be of this caste. Importantly, it introduced punishments for neglect from officials who are obligated to respond to reports of violence. This was in response to a trend of low arrests, low criminal charges, and often inaction by police departments.

The Supreme Court ruling said the act was “rampantly misused,” claiming that over 16% of claims were false, merely citizens using the laws as a forum to “settle personal scores and harass adversaries.” The courts’ revisions would stop requiring immediate arrests of those accused of anti-Dalit violence. Furthermore, any arrests made must be approved by a senior police official, and if a public official is be arrested, it must be with the written permission of that official’s own department.

These changes, the Dalit fear, will allow officials in the castes that so often commit the atrocities to turn a blind eye to the crimes of others in their social group. The protests across the country have led to the deaths of approximately 10 protesters. The crowds in various locations threatened shopkeepers, burned tires, confronted police, and blocked trains and traffic in the cities. In Punjab state the army and paramilitary forces were placed on standby, a curfew was imposed in locations around the country, and hundreds of protesters were detained.

A review petition has been introduced to the Supreme Court, to be advocated by government counsel. Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the government was not involved in the court’s decision, and that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment disagrees with the court’s reasoning, having filed every comprehensive review and determined that fewer than 10% of cases filed were for personal gripes.

Civil society organizations are expected to function as watchdogs and monitor individual cases and regional situations.  Citizens are also empowered to informally audit the performance of the state institutions, but encouraged to consider interfering in cases only when civil society is strong enough to protect the victims from any backlash. CSOs produce fact sheets and “report cards,” and track cases that arise. They publicize cases and track areas prone to high rates of caste violence. Online resources provide a calendar for monitoring the mandatory provisions of the Act, applicable to every year and including a panel to be held every three years. It is expectations like this that demand continuous vigilance, to lend longevity to the protections.

The advancement of human rights doesn’t have an endpoint. It must be monitored and improved upon, strengthened every time rights are endangered. The rapid response of the Dalit, mobilizing across the country in unity, goes to show that a staggering amount of people come together to stand up for their safety and rights.