Political protests over Supreme Court ruling is mere posturing and not concern for the marginalised and the poor.
The 20 March Supreme Court ruling on some provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has fuelled mass protests and given much-needed political ammunition to parties that recently faced a total electoral rout.
While the government quickly sought to do damage control, the apex court stood by its decision and even strongly defended its position. Addressing the Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, Justice A.K. Goel, who authored the verdict, is reported to have said: “Our judgment implements what is said in the Constitution. We are conscious of the rights of the underprivileged and place them at the highest pedestal… but at the same time, an innocent person cannot be falsely implicated and arrested without proper verification. We have not stopped the implementation of the Act. Does the Act mandate the arrest of innocent persons? Our judgment is not against the Act.”
According to the Supreme Court, it has sought to establish a ‘balance’ between Dalit rights and the rights of an innocent against arrest in a false case.
The judgment warrants that a “preliminary inquiry” should be conducted on whether a complaint filed by a Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe person is frivolous or not. An FIR can be registered only after the probe officer, a deputy superintendent of police, authenticates the complaint of caste-related slur or crime.
Potential impact of the judgment
This verdict settles the issue of ‘your word against mine’ in most of the cases. The verdict may also reduce the number of frivolous cases, thus reducing the burden on the courts and law-enforcing authorities.
But on the other hand, the verdict can also put off the already marginalised section of the society to remain silent in the face of organised acts of suppression of rights. While there is no empirical evidence to show how many of the cases are genuine, the amicus curiae has pointed out that 75 per cent of the cases result either in acquittal or withdrawal of charges, probably as a result of out of court settlement or the high and prohibitive cost of the justice system.
The SC/ST Act was brought in to ensure that the marginalised communities were protected from not only physical atrocities and acts of violence, but also mental agony due to insults and collective social misbehaviour.
It is a sad commentary on our justice and social system that even such an act with extreme provisions like impromptu arrest without inquiry and denial of anticipatory bail has not acted as sufficient deterrent.
Two issues require to be flagged here. One is that the critics of the apex court’s decision point out that many other laws are equally lopsided and arbitrary, thereby subject to misuse. They may have a point, but this argument serves no purpose and, at best, strengthens the Supreme Court’s view that such arbitrariness needs to be done away with to prevent its misuse.
Another aspect is the politicisation of the verdict and utter hypocrisy of the political class and a section of the so-called Dalit leadership.
Caste as a tool
A large number of political leaders and NGO-brand jholawallas have made big money out of the woes of the marginalised section of the society. While the Dalit and tribal communities continue to remain poor and denied social and economic justice, most of their leaders have entered the portals of power using the collective vote banks of their respective communities.
Every political party, especially the Congress, should stop and ponder over their rabble-rousing speeches and street protests. None of them have bothered to walk the path of Mahatma Gandhi or Babasaheb Ambedkar, much less even Baba Amte or the unknown and unsung nameless social workers silently devoting their lives in tribal areas.
The historical evolution of the so-called Dalit movement needs a closer scrutiny and understanding. All along the freedom struggle, a section of the social reformers as well as political leaders, in many cases the same, went to the extent of considering the colonial intervention not as a threat to Indian civilisation, but rather complementary to its evolutionary process. In fact from Tilak to Agarkar, from Ambedkar to Gandhi, Savarkar to Nehru, everyone considered the caste, class and religious divisions as greater threat to the Indian ethos of unity in diversity.
Predictably, the first challenge came from the south, resulting in the creation of Andhra Pradesh on linguistic lines. Ironically, the same state was again divided now on the basis of Telugu pride.
The temporary provision of reservation on the basis of caste became so permanent that no political party, either tottering on slender margins or one with brute majority, could ever muster courage to alter the status quo.
A large section of the religious community and the RSS declared untouchability as outdated and an evil aberration. Yet the political class has a vested interest in using the age old evil of caste divisions as a strong vote bank.
Parallels to the Raj
The longer the protests continue, the greater will be the damage to the cause of Dalit emancipation. The British used caste as a successful tool to polarise the society and consolidate their power.
A candid observation by Middleton, a superintendent of census operations in 1921, in reference to the British administration, should be an eye opener: “Government’s passion for labels and pigeon-holes has led to a crystallisation of the caste system which, except amongst the aristocratic castes, was really very fluid under indigenous rule.” (Caste and Race; Ghurye [1932:160])
The author was a pracharak of the RSS in the tribal areas of Maharashtra such as Wada, Mokhada, Talasari, Jhawar and the Konkan region, the birthplace of Babasaheb Ambedkar.