SC-ST atrocities law: Maharashtra's apathy, TN's will

SC-ST atrocities law: Maharashtra's apathy, Tamil Nadu's political will

Parliament was told last year that 25 states and UTs did not hold a single monitoring committee meeting between 2016-2018

Representative image. Credit: iStock Photo

Not a single accused was convicted last year in Mumbai under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989, according to the National Crime Research Bureau. 

One did not associate the country's financial capital with caste crimes, but the abuse meted out to MD student Dr Payal Tadvi by her seniors in a municipal medical college, which allegedly drove the 26-year-old tribal to suicide in 2019, put paid to that belief. 

In January this year, 21-year-old Mumbaikar Akash Jadhav was fatally assaulted by four drunks, who then ensured that the Dalit delivery boy's family was not allowed to use the common tap in their neighbourhood.

In neither of these cases did the police apply the Atrocities Act till forced to by activists or the State SC-ST Commission. They didn't apply it even when two Dalit families were tied to wooden poles and beaten in Chandrapur last month on the suspicion that they practised "black magic". 

Also Read — Stan Swamy's death and institutional murder

It was hardly surprising then that the state's conviction rate was only 11 per cent for crimes against SCs and 12.5 per cent for crimes against STs in 2020, though crimes against these sections increased by 19 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively. 

Urban Dalit families returning to their villages during the lockdown became the new victims as they found themselves subject to traditional caste barriers restricting them from common amenities.

In 2010, a Planning Commission Report found that Maharashtra had notified 31 of its 35 districts as atrocity prone but had not thought fit to have a single police station dealing exclusively with SCs and STs. Not much has changed in the intervening decade. 

Till 2018, i.e., almost 30 years after the Atrocities Act was passed, only four Special Courts to deal with cases under the Act had been set up. That year, Maharashtra ranked fourth in the country in crimes against STs and fifth in crimes against SCs.

From 2010 to 2018, the state had seen governments of both the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena. 

That there is no difference between the two when it comes to concern for the most deprived communities is obvious from just one example: the Bhima Koregaon violence of January 1, 2018. 

Then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, not surprisingly, protected Hindutvawadis Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, who were initially charged under the IPC and the Atrocities Act for the violence. Instead, his government shifted the blame to Leftist intellectuals, 15 of whom are still under arrest, while one Jesuit priest, 84-year-old Fr Stan Swamy, died in custody.

Even though victims' testimonies before the judicial commission set up to investigate the Bhima Koregaon violence indicate that Dalits were the main target, and point to the role of followers of Ekbote and Bhide, the Sena-NCP-Congress coalition that assumed power in November 2019 has not revived the initial investigation against these two. Indeed, government apathy towards the commission continues unchanged.

To be fair, it is not Maharashtra alone that does not deal with the Atrocities Act with the seriousness it deserves. Parliament was told last year that 25 states and union territories had held not a single monitoring committee meeting between 2016-2018; the Act stipulates such meetings be held twice a year. 

At the heart of this indifference lies this finding of the 2010 Planning Commission Report: across the six states it surveyed, it found that officials, policemen and even the judiciary believed that SCs and STs were misusing the Act against their ("high caste") opponents. Hence "judges were sceptical and wary of convicting the accused." 

Significantly, both the trial court and the High Court ruled out any caste angle in the 2006 Khairlanji lynching of three members of a Dalit family by an "upper caste" mob. It is hardly surprising then that the country's conviction rate under the Atrocities Act between 2017-2019 was just around 27 per cent, compared to 50 per cent for other crimes.

This dark scenario can change if there is political will. Last year, Tamil Nadu held its state monitoring committee meeting after a gap of seven years, that too under court pressure. 

The latest report of the Citizens' Vigilance Committee in Tamil Nadu found that though atrocities against SCs and STs increased 12 per cent during the pandemic, the conviction rate was just 25 per cent, with 12 out of 38 districts recording zero convictions. 

However, noted the Citizens' Committee, within 100 days of M K Stalin's DMK government taking over in May this year, it reconstituted the state monitoring committee and held its first meeting, "a record not only in the state, but also in the country."

One wonders when Maharashtra, home to B R Ambedkar and the Dalit Panthers, will set similar records.

(The writer is a journalist)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the authors' own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH. 

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox