Dalit anger

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Violence that broke out during Dalit protests in several states of India last Monday against a Supreme Court ruling are shameful and must be condemned. The brutal backlash by police and other security agencies involved in fire-fighting resulted in killing of nine persons and injuries to several others and these incidents call for impartial probe and the need to introspect whether the firing was unprovoked or some miscreants among the protestors were indeed armed with weapons and began shooting, as is being claimed in one or two cases. The organizations that called for the Dalit bandh should own at least the moral responsibility for their callousness in letting the protestors, they had mobilised for the show of strength on the call of Bharat bandh, to go out of control and resort to vandalism and violence of one of the worst kinds. Nobody should escape accountability for undermining the law and order machinery and all political groups must stop vitiating the air further with their diarrhea of blame game. The shocking incidents of Monday as public property was destroyed and ordinary people subjected to extreme harassment do not only necessitate the need for pinning the blame but also for understanding as to why violence erupted. The bandh call was given in response to an apex court ruling that sought to dilute the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which the court held is being used to blackmail innocent citizens, harass them and exploit them. The court handed down guidelines to protect both public servants and private employees, and as per these new guidelines those accused of atrocities against the oppressed groups cannot be immediately arrested. In the face of much political pressures, the Centre on Monday filed a review petition in the Supreme Court, stating that the March 20 verdict of the court will violate Article 21 of the Constitution for the SC/ST communities and sought restoration of the provisions the Act. What the latest court verdict has done is to provide a cover of impunity to public servants and private individuals from arbitrary and immediate arrest in accusations of discriminatory behaviour, violation of rights faced by the SC/ST individuals or communities. That laws can be twisted and abused by vested interests in power is not a distinct problem with the concerned act, as it stood till the recent apex court order. Such a probability does not call for diluting or striking down laws but to strengthen the implementation of the laws. It need not be forgotten that the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989 has been one of India’s most progressive laws to keep in check the enormous scale of atrocities that afflict the country’s socially oppressed castes. The objective of this law has been to eradicate inherent discriminatory attitudes towards the socially oppressed sections of society. This oppression needs an elaboration to realise the true import of the latest court directions. Despite several measures in the last seven decades to improve the socio-economic conditions of the oppressed classes, which continue to be opposed by the elite classes, they remain vulnerable and are denied basic civil rights in a democratic country. It is no open secret that they are subjected to routine harassment, indignities and even torture. Even though the constitution guarantees them equal rights, the implementation of many laws and policy decisions are often tilted against them and they have to constantly bear the brunt of institutional biases at all levels including the denial by upper caste communities to allow them access to clean drinking water, the harsh attitudes in schools, other educational institutions and work places and the failure of the legal justice systems that are often guided by the upper caste hegemonistic tendencies. The original SC/ST Act and its later amendments, therefore, were an attempt to bridge the gaps and give the oppressed communities their due by discouraging discrimination and atrocities against them. It is this major achievement that the Supreme Court has now undone in one stroke in its latest verdict. The anger of the Dalit protestors that spiraled into uncontrollable violence on Monday needs to be understood in this light, not simply as a law and order problem.