Did the Supreme Court ‘dilute‘ the Scheduled Caste & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989? The answer is an unequivocal ‘no’.
The apex court only addressed a perceived but real lacuna in the law: once in a while, a person falls victim to it because of reasons other than committing inhuman atrocities and casting unpardonable slurs on the SC and ST Act.
They (the innocent) might be few in number (between 5,000 to 6,000, says the data) compared to the sheer number (in the lakhs) of crimes committed on the people belonging to the SC and ST communities. But, as they say, even though a 100 criminals may go free because of a loophole in a law, not a single innocent should be incarcerated because of a lacuna in law. It could be personal enmity or professional differences/jealousy with a person from a SC/ST community that landed them in the soup.
Sometimes, even a lighthearted comment can be construed as a slur on the ‘caste/tribe’ of the person at whom the comment is directed. In many cases, such comments are not meant to hurt. They are made at the spur of an angry moment. Often, it is followed by regret. It happens between friends. It is not that there is no friendship at all between people who belong to SC/ST communities and those who don’t. And, even if it’s happening slowly, people are opting to lose caste identities, especially in urban settings.
The question as to whether the top court ‘diluted’ the Act, therefore, fetches counter questions: did the Supreme Court water down provisions of the law, per se? Did the apex court change the punishment regime for crimes committed under the Act? Did the top court cull the kinds of crimes committed against people in SC/ST groups incorporated in the Act? Did it dilute/change their definitions?
A trained lawyer will be able to add other questions to this lot, but the one single-answer to all of them would be an emphatic ‘no’.
Posed with a question, the Supreme Court felt, and rightly so, that there ought to be ‘protection to the innocent/framed’ incorporated in the law. There is nothing wrong in that, is there? In fact, no law is definite and absolute. Laws are dynamic and subject to change. The Parliament in 1989, could have erred and overlooked a vulnerability in the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Often-times, the zeal of the moment carries the day.
Let’s just say that the 2-judge bench of the Supreme Court thought it fit to address a lacuna in the law and chose to give some say to ‘individual liberty’ against ‘group identity’. In any case, fundamental rights of individuals are the cornerstones of the Constitution/democracy.
True, people in the SC/ST communities have been victims of crimes committed on them, individually and as a group, through the centuries. It was imperative to give them protection from murder, rape and humiliation committed on them solely because they belonged to certain groups considered less than others in society. ‘Children of a Lesser God’, so to speak.
These are historical wrongs. They need to be corrected. That calls for drastic laws such as the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. In many ways, it is a foolproof act. Despite the Act, atrocities against the SC/ST communities have not abated.
The conviction rate in cases of atrocities committed against SC/ST communities is shamelessly low. Perpetrators of such crime get away with murder. But, that is true in all cases in which the ‘poor’ in general are victims. The Salman Khans of this world do have an advantage over the vast majority.
Coming to the ‘Bharat bandh’ – the purpose of the shutdown was to protest against the so-called ‘dilution of the law by the Supreme Court’. But do you need a ‘Bharat bandh’ to protest and send the message across?
The ‘bandh‘ is such an Indian construct. Americans and Europeans ‘march’ to coerce governments. The people in other countries in the world do not give a call for a ‘bandh’ across the entire country. It is a stupid tool.
Besides, it was not the government of the day which ‘diluted’ the Act. It was a court ruling. There are any number of ways to force the government. Especially, in a year chock-full of elections, and with general election just a year away. A government – any government – that shirks its responsibility to act on behalf of SC/ST communities does so at its own peril. There is too much to lose.
It was quite clear that the ‘bandh’ was hijacked by political parties. That the violence across India was expected and planned. What did we expect – that the likes of Karni Sena would not take advantage?
Besides, the young Dalit of today is not the one to take 20 steps back so that their shadow does not fall on an upper-caste Brahman. With leaders like Jignesh Mevani and Savitribhai Phule, there is a new aggression within the Dalits. Their utterances are no less provocative. The Koregaon reaction was a precursor to the ‘uprising’ on ‘Bharat bandh’ day.
The problem is that not every Dalit thinks with the clarity of a Rohith Vemula. How many in the SC community know what they were protesting against on ‘bandh’ day? The majority did not have an inkling.
Many were told that the “government” had scrapped the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities ) Act. Was it a surprise that Congress President Rahul Gandhi tweeted that the SC/ST stood “scrapped”?
Lastly, if the Supreme Court thought group-thinking and group identities were the bane of India, was it wrong? The goal should not be to firm-up caste blocs. It should be to eliminate caste identities altogether. At the end of the day, in the long term, laws such as the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act pit castes against each other – maybe on a leveller playing field. That is all.