Why do we think certain man-made stringent laws should become gospel truths for all times and should not stand open to review even if cries for justice emerge from the suffering lot under their rigorous provisions? Can such laws really meet the end of justice if found grossly misused over time? Why do we assume these laws are sacrosanct, unerring and wholly in tune with reasoning? Our laws need to protect rights of everyone, high or low.

Blake Mycoskie said, “ We are all human beings and I believe that we all should have equal rights.” Recently, the Supreme Court found the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which came drastically amended in 1989, becoming tougher “to undo injustices to Dalits” rooted in the centuries-old caste system, being increasingly “misused”, framing innocent people under its water-tight provisions. Moved by a call for justice, the court applied a corrective, through an order on March 20 this year, ruling that the suspected offenders charged under this Act could now be arrested only if a “preliminary inquiry” pointed to their criminality. Thus, the court made an initial probe mandatory before arresting the accused. Provision of bail was also restored.

The court issued guidelines, noticing the “abuse of law to blackmail innocent public servants and private individuals to wreak personal vengeance or serve vested interests.” It’s common knowledge that such fake cases are built up at the instance of influential people to settle scores with their adversaries in contests, conflicts or disputes. Through the provision of “preliminary inquiry”, the court clearly intended to protect only the “innocent” ones from arbitrary and immediate arrest, for it seemed to believe that an initial probe, to be carried out very carefully, covering every aspect of the complaint, would separate water from the mud.

It was one Bhaskar Gaikwad, a store manager in a Pune college, whose FIR had led to a litigation with his two seniors and also the Director of Technical Education, but finally the “dilution” came on the DTE”s petition in the top court. Gaekwad, however, claims that he had suffered as a victim at the hands of the three highly placed litigants.

Fake Complaints Mushrooming

Sometime ago, I also came across a case where an influential high-caste politician tried to implicate his opponent by using a Dalit plaint on offer of big money. The criminal foray was detected by a telephone conversation. Such incidents of fake complaints are as common in India as are the real ones. That is why the court observed that “Innocent citizens are termed accused, which is not intended by the legislature. The legislature never intended to use the Atrocities Act as an instrument to blackmail or wreak personal vengeance.”

Subsequently, the court explained that the 1989 law has not been “diluted”, rather some suggestions have been made to “protect innocents”. The anti-atrocities law, the court said, did not demand that an innocent person be arrested. The verdict offered some relaxation only on two tough provisions — arbitrary arrests and non-availability of bail.

If there is no initial probe, how does the investigating officer conclude that the complaint is genuine? The court observed that the law had resulted in public servants being harassed and prevented from offering even basic criticism of their non-performing SC-ST employees.

Last year, the same bench had noticed that many women were misusing the anti-dowry law — Section 498A of IPC — by registering false cases. The court ordered a verification of charges before arresting the accused. But the verdict was overturned by another bench some time later. Why? It is understandable that courts also absorb the public sentiment and move in a direction that, more often than not, is “people-friendly” and don’t militate against the established order, even if justice demands stiff legal action there. After the violent protests like Bharat Bandh of April 2, another SC bench could well have come to overturn this judgment, if the Narendra Modi government had not brought in a new law to overturn the apex court’s intervention.

Nine Deaths In Dalit Violence

Following the court order on the anti-atrocity law, all hell broke loose. Even though the Union government quickly filed a review petition, saying that a substantial SC-ST population of India was adversely affected by this verdict which had wide ramifications”, resulting in dilution of the stringent provisions of law”, members of Dalit community called for a “Bharat Bandh”, which resulted in nationwide violence and nine deaths. Large-scale violence was reported from Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat. People blocked roads, rail network and set fire to public property.

A writ petition was filed by the All India Federation of SC-ST Organisations, calling for early hearing since “the entire nation had witnessed widespread violence against its verdict.” But the court declined urgent hearing on the petition, saying the plea would be listed and heard in due course. Apparently, the court didn’t yield to pressure tactics.
Since the apex court bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit had passed its order, apparently after studying a number of cases where the law had been clearly “misused,” the judges became convinced that the Act needed to be partly reviewed to meet the end of justice. But the order not only left the people from weaker sections upset, but also brought the politicians playing nasty politics which openly incited violence. Some influential Dalit leaders have even demanded creation of “Harijanistan (Dalit land).”

Though the “dilution” order came from the court and the NDA-ruled Centre quickly filed a review petition, Rahul Gandhi blamed the Narendra Modi govt for all the malaise. He tweeted : “To keep the Dalits at the lowest level of the Indian society is the DNA of BJP/RSS .Whosoever tries to raise his voice is violently suppressed. Thousands of Dalit brothers and sisters have taken to the streets against the Modi govt, demanding protection of their rights. We salute them.” As a politician, raring to become PM, he didn’t think it wise for a moment to ask the protesters to stay away from violence and use only peaceful means of protest. And such “agent provocateurs”, a social activist says, are too many on our sprawling political space.

Paswan Threat To Quit NDA

Even NDA constituent Lok Janshakti Party leader and Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan is feeling anguished over the “dilution” of this law. His party has served notice on the Modi govt to quit the NDA if an ordinance to strengthen the SC-ST Act was not promulgated and the NGT Chairman Justice Goyal, who was on the court bench which passed this “anti-Dalit” order, was not removed by August 9. Paswan’s son, MP Chirag Paswan, has declared that LJP was “running out of patience” and warned of yet stronger agitation if the Union govt failed to deliver on his party’s demands.

Well, Paswan, as a Dalit leader, would essentially do that for he needs Dalit support in elections to stay in power with this alliance or that. And why Paswan alone, no Dalit leader seems to accept that false cases of Dalit “abuse”, especially of criminal, sexual assaults, also come to light frequently in every part of the country. If under the stringent 1989 law, which provided for immediate arrest of the accused on FIR, many innocent ones suffered “indignity” of incarceration because of its draconian provision, where even preliminary probe was not available to justify an arrest, no one is bothered today, except some highly thoughtful and sensitive people or legal luminaries who rightly find merit in this alleged “dilution”.

In blaming the Modi govt, Rahul had apparently forgotten that if Dalits are at the society’s “lowest level” today, decades of Congress rule is squarely to be blamed. The party had always exploited this section after quietly bringing it into its vote bank fold. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Ganchi and later Sonia Gandhi, all had sung paeans for them, doing pretty little as they suffered endless abject poverty. Congress leaders can’t deny that their party had always used them as an easy, bulky vote-bank during elections and conveniently overlooked their interests after coming to power. This explains why Dalits still remain a marginalized community even today. One may ask : Why did the Congress govts choose to open liquor shops, instead of schools and colleges, in Dalit colonies? Demolition of Dalit dwellings in cities with no alternative arrangements for lesser homes had been an established practice under Congress rule. In how many states, SC-ST certificates were issued and jobless were given employment?

Will Dalit Vote To BJP Shrink?
Even though, the BJP has faced sharp criticism from the opposition of being biased against Dalits, especially in the context of Rohith Vemula’s death, the Saharanpur Dalit-Thakur clashes in UP and the Una attacks in Gujarat, nothing really stands to testify that. The saffron party has just become a victim of the combined Congress-led opposition hate campaign. PM Modi has always stood strongly on the side of Dalits and why not, when the year 2014 marked an unprecedented shift in Dalits voting with the BJP, gaining almost a quarter of their votes? If the party’s Dalit vote share in 2014 swung to twice that of 2009, it goes to the credit of Modi whose administration as CM in Gujarat was not much cited as being anti-Dalit in any reasonable critical appreciation of his deliveries.

Will Rahul explain why in 2014, the BJP’s gain in the Dalit vote share was at the cost of the Congress and Dalit leader Mayawati’s BSP? And why all anti-BJP parties, including BSP, faced a horrific decline in the last UP election? If Rahul and Mayawati really spend days and nights spreading blueprints for Dalit amelioration, why is their vote bank shrinking fast? The UP assembly election saw voter turnout of over 61 per cent, with the BJP winning by an overwhelming three-quarter majority of 325 seats. The voters were influenced again by Modi’s presence as the party had not projected any chief ministerial candidate before the election.

Akhilesh, Mayawati On Declining Phase?

If in the 2012 UP poll, the SP formed a “great govt”, as was variously claimed, why were this known “pro-Muslim” party and its leader Akhilesh Yadav summarily rejected by the electorate in 2017? If in the three following by-elections, the BJP has lost, it’s because of the unholy tie-up of the opposition parties who can do no more than ganging up to dislodge Modi from power. Where is Dalit leader Mayawati, or “Muslim benefactor” Akhilesh today? Had both Dalits and Muslims not voted for the BJP, it would not have been holding power in UP today.

The SC-ST Act, which was enacted way back in 1955 in the form of the Untouchability (Offences) Act, providing for correcting the historical wrongs through Articles 17 (abolition of untouchability) and 46 (directive to the govt to protect educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of society), broadly stood in good stead. But it was found lacking in effectiveness. As such, the law was amended further and renamed as the Protection of Civil Rights Act in 1976. This again was found toothless in dealing with atrocities. Consequently, a few years later, it was replaced with a tougher “Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act” in 1989. This Act, which was further amended under Modi’s dispensation in 2015, punished even casteist slurs and denied anticipatory bail to the accused. The amendment also provided that tonsuring of head, moustache and similar acts that are derogatory to the dignity of humans, will now be treated as atrocities to Dalits.

While these laws rightly addressed injustices rooted in the caste system, some of their provisions did gross injustice to individuals falsely accused of “atrocities”. The March 20 SC order only “corrected” those provisions. The court ruling stand justified on this count.

Satya Pal Singh is a senior journalist who has worked for reputed national newspapers and news agencies, senior executive in a blue-chip cooperative organisation under the administrative control of the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers