Justice in Jehanabad

Thirteen years after 58 Dalits, 37 of them women and children, were killed in Laxmanpur-Bathe village of Jehanabad in Bihar, a Patna court has sentenced to death 16 of the accused and awarded life sentence to 10 others. The accused were members of an upper caste militia, the Ranvir Sena, which was behind scores of caste killings in Bihar in the 1990s. The conviction and sentence of the accused is reassuring. It signals that even the most deprived sections of our society, which Dalits are, can get justice by moving the courts. Yet, the sentencing of the accused in the 1997 Jehanabad massacre is a flash in the pan. It is among a very few instances in the country where Dalits have been able to secure justice. Dalits and Adivasis continue to be vulnerable to horrific levels of violence even after two decades of enacting the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Early this week, Dalits in a village in Hissar district in Haryana were attacked by dominant caste Jats who burnt down around a dozen of their homes. An 18-year-old physically challenged Dalit girl, who was unable to flee her burning home, was burnt alive. It is believed that a mere spat over a dog turned into a scuffle that was enough to provoke the Jats to burn down Dalit homes. Anticipating violence, the Dalits had apparently approached the police for help but that was not forthcoming.

Not a day passes without Dalits being harassed, humiliated, beaten, exploited or killed in this country. It was to prevent this that the SC and ST Atrocities Prevention Act, 1989, was enacted. But 20 years on, there are few signs that it has succeeded. The National Crime Records Bureau figures actually show that the number of atrocities has increased since the law was enacted in 1989.

Often, Dalits are unable to even register a complaint against their upper caste tormentors as the police refuse to perform their duty. In the few that do get registered, police close the case soon after, thus allowing assailants to get away. If the case is taken up for trail in the court of law, witnesses are intimidated. Will this happen in Hissar as well? The reluctance of police to protect the Dalits in the run-up to the violence indicates it will, unless the government and civil society intervene.

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