Wednesday, November 18, 2009

[ZESTCaste] Walls in minds


Walls in minds


The Prevention of Atrocities Act needs more teeth, and dominant castes
should see their own enlightened self-interests in upholding Dalit


The wall in Uthapuram in Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, which, before a
150-metre stretch was demolished by the State government in 2008,
blocked Dalits from entering areas previously under common use. The
wall was built in 1989, the year the Prevention of Atrocities Act came
into force.

THE caste system, of which "untouchability" is an integral part, has
taken shape as a mechanism by which advantages, positions of privilege
and opportunities for advancement can be secured in favour of a
minority of the population while the majority is confined to the role
of providing agricultural labour and other labour and services, many
of them demeaning, and to that of supplying primary and secondary
goods on exploitative terms, which keeps it deprived of opportunities
for upward mobility.

Those in the lowest tier of this system, consisting mainly of
agricultural castes and other labour castes (the "safai" castes, for
instance), have now been classified as Scheduled Castes (S.Cs). The
scourge of caste is the severest on them and they often face

The castes placed just above the S.Cs are those of artisans and
artisanal/artisan-like producers, the pastoral castes and the castes
of those rendering inferior services, all of whom belong to the
category of Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEdBCs), also
referred to as the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The next higher tier
consists of castes of peasants most, but not all, of which have been
categorised as Backward Classes (B.Cs). At the top are the castes that
hold positions/occupations of privilege and prestige, referred to as
the advanced/forward castes. The Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), the bulk of
whom live in their tribal homelands, are outside the caste system but
are subjected to various disadvantages and deprivations that keep them
at the lowest level of society and economy along with the S.Cs.

The "discipline" of "untouchability" was adequate over the centuries
to confine the agricultural labour castes and what are now known as
the S.Cs to labour-providing roles. Similarly, the confinement of the
S.Ts in remote areas was enough to keep them at the bottom of society
and the economy. However, the reformist, nationalist and revolutionary
movements of the last century and a half and the movements inspired by
B.R. Ambedkar instilled in the S.Cs a new awareness. Untouchability
and the philosophy of the caste system came under challenge. A new
instrument of discipline had to be forged and atrocities against S.Cs
and S.Ts started taking place.

The trend can be traced to the 19th century in parts of India. A
committee that toured British India in the 1920s for a review of the
working of the Government of India Act, 1919, noted that many
atrocities were being committed against the "untouchables" but were
going unnoticed and unpunished because no witness would come forward
to give evidence.

Dr Ambedkar, then a Member of the Legislative Council of Bombay, cited
some early instances of atrocities against Dalits in Annexure A to the
Statement submitted by him to the Indian Statutory Commission (Simon
Commission) on behalf of the Bahishkrita Hitakarini Sabha on May 29,
1928, including the rioting and mass assaults on Dalits on March 20,
1927, for asserting their right to drinking water from the public
Chowdar tank in Mahad, Kolaba district, and the mass assaults on and
burning down of the dwellings of Balais (S.C.) in Indore district.

After Independence

After Independence, one of the early indications of simmering caste
animosities came with the Ramanathapuram riots of 1957 after the
assassination of the young, educated Dalit leader Immanuel Sekaran,
who had refused to follow caste-based customs of social interaction.
The signal hardly registered on the all-India radar, though the State
government under K. Kamaraj took strong measures to quell the attacks
on S.Cs.

But the national leadership and Parliament sat up and took notice
after the Keezhavenmani massacre, on Christmas eve in 1968, in which
44 S.C. people were burnt to death in Tamil Nadu. Then there was the
gruesome killing of Kotesu in Kanchikacherla in 1969 in Andhra
Pradesh, which was defended by a State Minister. After that, there
were many other instances of violence against the oppressed castes in
different parts of the country in quick succession.

Monitoring atrocities

The Government of India, under pressure from the Dalit Members of
Parliament, started monitoring atrocities against the S.Cs from 1974,
and those against the S.Ts from 1981. The focus was on murder, rape,
arson and grievous hurt.

There was a spurt in atrocities from 1977. This, and a statement of
the then Union Home Minister advancing a shocking argument, apparently
to play down the seriousness of the situation, resulted in an outcry
and the creation of the post of Joint Secretary in the Ministry of
Home Affairs in charge of the subject of S.Cs and B.Cs. I was then in
the post of Joint Secretary under the Ministry of Commerce/Industry
and volunteered for this post. Apart from utilising this opportunity
to conceptualise, create and launch the Special Component Plan (SCP)
for S.Cs and a scheme of Central Assistance to the S.C. and S.T.
Development Corporations of the States and Special Central Assistance
to the State SCPs (the last of which could materialise only after the
regime change in 1980), I took up on top priority the task of
monitoring atrocities.

This I converted from mere receipt and transmission of statistical
information into an active pursuit of individual gruesome cases such
as the ones in Belchi, Bodh Gaya, Chainpur, Marathwada,
Chikkabasavanahalli and Indravalli. Special courts with special judges
were set up for specific cases by State governments and special
prosecutors were chosen carefully. This helped to secure quick trials
and convictions. I continued this practice after the regime change in
1980 and pursued the atrocities at Pipra, Kafalta, Jetalpur, and so
on. This produced a crop of convictions and punishments, including
death sentences in Belchi.

An important landmark is the historical letter of Union Home Minister
Giani Zail Singh dated March 10, 1983, to all State Chief Minister and
Governors, candidly touching the root of atrocities and clearly
mapping the preventive, punitive, rehabilitative and personnel
measures required. The letter is now forgotten, but its contents have
found place in the Prevention of Atrocities Act & Rules. It was
prepared by me in the white heat of the Pipra massacre of February
27-28, 1980.

Atrocities, however, continued to take place as the Centre and State
governments evaded addressing basic contradictions, vulnerabilities
and causative factors. Only the symptoms of the problem were treated,
and palliative measures were taken where radical solutions were

In his Independence Day address from the Red Fort in 1987, Prime
Minister Rajiv Gandhi, under continued pressure from Dalit MPs and
leaders, said that an Act would be passed to check atrocities against
the oppressed castes. I was called back from the State and appointed
as Special Commissioner for S.Cs (the pre-1992 constitutional
machinery under Article 338).

I had the privilege of helping in translating the Prime Minister's
policy announcement into a Bill and conceptualising its frame and
content. The S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act came into
force with the President's assent on September 11, 1989. Subsequently,
after I was appointed Secretary, Ministry of Welfare, I got the Act
operationalised with effect from January 30, 1990. Though the frame
and part of the content I pressed for came into the Act, some
important provisions which I had proposed did not find place, which
made the Act less effective than it could have been.

Impact of the Act

The Act came as a watershed in the jurisprudence of protection for the
S.Cs and S.Ts and their better coverage by the Right to Life under
Article 21.

Its potential was immediately recognised positively by scholars such
as Upendra Baxi and negatively by certain Chief Ministers belonging to
the dominant upper castes or dominant middle castes, including the
land-owning B.Cs, which tried soft-pedalling/backsliding tactics.

Over time, the Act created a certain measure of confidence in S.C. and
S.T. communities that they had a protective cover and also a wariness
in potential perpetrators of atrocities. Yet, atrocities continue as
basic contradictions, vulnerabilities and root causes continue to
remain unresolved.

The benefits of this basically and conceptually sound Act has not
fully, or even largely, reached the S.Cs and S.Ts on account of
deficiencies in the Act and in various aspects of its implementation.

Basic contradictions

Because of the traditional socio-economic structure and system, still
largely prevalent today, most S.Cs live typically in a situation where
they form the major segment/majority of agricultural wage-labourers
but a minority of the population. This is true of not less than 80 per
cent of the S.Cs as they are less urbanised than other communities
(only 20 per cent against the average of 32 per cent in 2001).

The juxtaposition, typical of the Indian village, of a caste of
agricultural labourers (S.C.) with a caste of land-based dominant
upper castes/dominant middle castes and dominant middle B.Cs, to which
most of the large landowners belong, provides an explosive situation
that can be ignited by any spark.

This juxtaposition is accompanied by dissonance caused by continuing
economic dependence of S.Cs on their oppressors though they have
rejected the ideology of inequality and subservience; contradictions
between socio-economic realities and socio-ideological and
socio-psychological factors; and contradictions between the aspiration
for equality from below and atavistic yearnings above.

The state has been unwilling or unable to intervene actively in the
caste situation because the leadership, both at the national and State
level, is drawn from or is dependent on socially and economically
powerful persons belonging to dominant upper and middle castes and
dominant B.Cs.

The Dalits' demand for land and better wages and their resistance to
discrimination and demands for modern, civilised inter-personal,
inter-community relations are opposed by major
land-owning/land-controlling dominant upper and middle castes and
dominant middle B.Cs.

Even the limited upward mobility and consequent changes in lifestyles,
achieved though hard work, thrift and education, with or without the
aid of reservation, is an eyesore to those who are accustomed to
seeing the S.Cs as only indigent and subservient labourers.

Even the legitimate protection of their rights, such as resistance to
the encroaching of community land, is perceived as intolerable and
insolent rebellion and is resentfully stored in the mind until an
opportunity arises to wreak collective "vengeance", as happened in the
mass arson case in Gohana, Sonepat district, Haryana on August 31,

Members of the much-trumpeted civil society (with a few honourable
exceptions) are either hostile on account of their own dominant caste
origins or indifferent on account of the socio-psychology and
socio-culture fostered over centuries by the caste system.

These basic contradictions ought to have been resolved by resolute and
radical measures such as quick distribution of agricultural land to
all rural S.C. families so that not a single such family remains
landless and dependent on others for its livelihood; similar land
distribution to landless S.T. families in non-tribal areas; stopping
the loss of tribal lands; rescuing S.C. children from the compulsion
to work to supplement their family incomes; setting up a network of
high quality residential schools from Class VI to XII for S.C.
children in every district and mandal/tehsil area and similar schools
for S.Ts (in which one-fourth to one-third of the seats could be
provided for poor non-S.C./non-S.T. children respectively); ensuring
full access and reasonable presence of S.Cs and S.Ts in government and
private educational institutions at all levels through reservation and
other means (Bill for reservation of seats for S.C., S.T. and B.C. in
private educational institutions for which the 93rd Constitutional
Amendment was passed in 2005 is pending after the Act providing
reservation for them in government institutions was upheld by the
Supreme Court on April 10, 2008).

The failure of the Central and State governments to implement these
economic liberation and educational equalisation measures and various
other programmes which are part of the unimplemented
national/constitutional/CMP commitments have been compounded by
certain lacunae in the Act and the failure to ensure the thorough
implementation of the Act even as it is, on account of indifference of
local-level personnel and casualness of high-level personnel (all
subject to honourable exceptions).

Statistics of poor outcome

That is why, as I analysed from the annual reports on the Act (for the
years 1999 to 2003 tabled in the House), only 50 to 60 per cent of the
cases reported to the police lead to charge sheets; only eight to 21
per cent of the cases in which charge sheets are filed go on to the
trial stage. Convictions are secured in only 11 to 13 per cent of the
cases that are tried. The percentage of conviction is only 1 to 2 per
cent when calculated against all cases that reach the court.

While S.Cs and S.Ts may not be aware of statistical details, they are
aware of the acquittals in many serious cases. They are aware, from
their own experience, of indifference, sometimes even hostility, in
investigations and tortuous delays in trial. The perception among
them, therefore, is that the Act and its implementation fall far short
of their expectations and need. As illustrations, one may mention that
in the Tsunduru atrocity case of Andhra Pradesh (August 6, 1991), a
substantive trial could start only in November 2004; the Kumher case
of Rajasthan (June 6, 1992) has been blocked by the appointment of a
judicial inquiry, followed by a Cabinet Committee and then a
Secretaries' Committee; and in Gohana a substantive trial is yet to
start. It is symbolic of the situation that while the Berlin Wall fell
at the same time (September 11, 1989) as this Act was passed, the wall
in Uthapuram (Madurai district, Tamil Nadu) and the wall between Bhim
Nagar and Dare Nagar (Satara district, Maharashtra) to isolate and
keep out Dalits still stand tall. So do the walls in people's minds.

A number of Dalit and human rights organisations and activists have
been engaged in helping and guiding S.C. and S.T. victims and
survivors of atrocities. Their grassroots experience has brought out
specific problems of implementation. These are partly traceable to the
lacunae in the Act and partly to the lackadaisical way in which
individuals are posted in positions of responsibility for actual
day-to-day implementation of the Act, and indifference (subject to
honourable exceptions) at the top levels of the political and
permanent executive at national, State and sub-State levels.

Amendments required

After a series of meetings and consultations, the last of which was on
September 11, 2009, marking the 20th anniversary of the presidential
assent, and flagging off of a campaign upto January 30, 2010 (20th
anniversary of the operationalisation of the Act), a compendium of
amendments required in the Act has been prepared.

The convergent sources from which these proposed amendments have been
put together are the provisions that I proposed in 1988 and 1989 but
which did not find place in the Act; the Dalit Manifesto of 1996,
which I formulated under the auspices of the National Action Forum for
Social Justice and certain subsequent documents, in which some
important provisions had been included; my personal observations
during my visits to the sites of a number of atrocities and the
feedback I have been receiving from victims, social workers and
valuable media reports; the field experience of a large number of
Dalit and human rights organisations in the past 20 years; and
suggestions made in national consultations and meetings based on the
field experience of participants.

The proposed amendments fall under the following categories. (1) Those
required for speedy and fair trial. (2) Inclusion of offences which do
occur but were not specified in the Act in 1989. (3) Effective
protection of victims, including survivors, and witnesses and their
rights. (4) Deletion of words and phrases such as "intent",
"intentionally", and "forcibly" which are not really necessary but
which give a handle to defeat prosecution. (5) Spelling out the duties
of public servants. (6) Extension of the protective umbrella of the
Act to sections of victims who for technical reasons are left out. (7)
Establishment of an effective national authority to monitor and ensure
the proper implementation of the Act. (8) Complementary amendments in
the Constitution, Representation of the People Act and to the Criminal
Procedure Code Amendment Act, 2008.

Democratic movement

The strengthening of the Act is only one aspect of the struggle. The
other part is to build up a powerful and peaceful democratic movement
all over the country, encompassing S.Cs and S.Ts as well as other
patriotic members of the general society in order to bring home to the
government and all arms of the government that they should give the
highest priority to the actual implementation of the Act and deliver
full protection to the S.Cs and S.Ts on the basis of the principle of
zero tolerance of atrocities. This has to be accompanied by measures
of economic liberation and educational parity at all levels.

The protection, development, advancement and empowerment of the S.Cs
and S.Ts is synonymous with the advancement and progress of the
nation. Dalit and human rights organisations and their enlightened
friends should take up this task with this vision and sense of
national destiny.

It must be understood by the advanced castes and classes of society
who occupy the commanding heights of the state and of all its
institutions and also the economy and private institutions and the
media, that casualness or indifference or hostility on their part to
this goal of ensuring the protection, development, advancement and
empowerment of S.Cs and S.Ts will be injurious to their own
self-interest, not to speak of the national interest, which would
profit from optimal development of the nation in economic as well as
social parameters. Their own progress will be hampered by the dead
weight of the past. If they look at this issue rationally and from the
point of view of their own enlightened self-interest, they should
wholeheartedly join this epic effort and historical movement.

P.S. Krishnan is former Secretary, Government of India. He is at
present the Chief Adviser, National Coalition for Strengthening the
POA Act and its Implementation; Chairman, People's Commission against
Atrocities on Dalits; Chief Patron, National Action Forum for Social
Justice; Chief Adviser, National Dalit Election Watch; and has been
working for social justice for more than 50 years.

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