On April 2, in an unprecedented show of solidarity, Dalits across India observed a Bharat Bandh to protest against the March 20 judgement of the Supreme Court that effectively took away whatever teeth the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act had been left with. When it was passed by Parliament in 1989, it was hailed as the only legislation with teeth because of its bold provisions to act against the perpetrators of atrocities against Dalits. But the court, reading through a single appeal of a senior government official who had already been given anticipatory bail by the Bombay High Court, rushed to impose a new condition: before the accused can be arrested under the Act, it will be necessary to obtain the prior approval of the appointing authority in case of a public servant and of Deputy Superintendant of Police in case of the general public.

Notwithstanding many technical controversies the judgement throws up, the case indicated that neither the officials of the pharmacy college in the Maharashtra town of Karad accused in the case nor the appellant had suffered an iota of injustice. Rather, the Dalit employee who complained against them, whatever the merit of his plea, did not get anything out of it. The court, instead of dealing with the appeal, went beyond to see the gross misuse of the Atrocity Act to impose conditions, which would make the act still more difficult for victims to use.

Atrocities on Dalits are endemic. National Crime Research Bureau data based on police records indicates a persistent rise in the number of atrocities against Dalits over the last two decades but a decline in the number of cases registered under the Atrocity Act. This counterintuitive observation clearly indicates that there is reluctance from the police to register complaints under the Act. Are these real numbers? A plethora of studies indicate that the real numbers of atrocities may be scaled up by a multiple of 10. A study conducted in 2016 by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, titled “Non-Registration of Crimes: Problems and Solutions” found that around 75% of respondents would avoid reporting a crime as they feel unhappy with the way the police behave with complainants, especially women and people from marginalised sections. If this is the state of the general population, the condition of the Dalits can well be imagined.

An atrocity every 10 minutes

Going by official figures, an atrocity is committed on Dalits every 10 minutes. However, reading this judgement, the honourable judges appear oblivious of this horrific context while taking up cudgels for the hypothetical harassment of innocent people because of the imagined misuse of the Act by Dalits.

The Atrocity Act has a context of the caste dynamics. The so-called false cases the judgement refers to are largely the product of these dynamics. What drives these dynamics is the huge power asymmetry between the Dalit victim and the non-Dalit perpetrator of an atrocity. In a rare case (if she receives community support, for instance), the victim may work up the courage to report the crime to the police. The police often dissuade the victim from registering a case, in order to avoid incurring the wrath of the powerful people accused. As the social backing for the victim declines with passage of time, the pressure mounts from the accused – invariably mediated through police – and reaches a point where the victim cannot take it anymore. She buckles and complies with the demands of the criminal, As they go to trial, these become false cases or failed cases.

It is common sense that a Dalit landless labourer, even if he musters up the courage to file a complaint against powerful people for committing an atrocity, would not be able to withstand their threats over a long time. In a corollary, only in a stray case could a resourceful Dalit think of using the Act. All Acts are misused by the powerful – but only those which are meant to protect weaker sections like the rape laws or anti-dowry laws are decried.

In scores of cases in trial, the courts themselves have declined to apply the Atrocity Act. In the Khairlanji case, which involved the horrific murder of four members of a Dalit family in 2006, the trial court dropped the application of the Atrocity Act saying that the crime had not been motivated by the caste of the victims. In another equally heinous case in 2002 in which five Dalits were lynched by a Vishwa Hindu Parishad mob and then set them on fire in the compound of the police station in Haryana’s Dulina, the court did not apply the Atrocity Act. It said that the criminals did not know the caste of the victims. It implied that the courts expected a rapist of a Dalit girl to shout aloud enough to be heard by a witnesses that he was raping the girl because of her caste.

Technical flaws

A painstaking analysis of 450 judgements delivered over a decade since 1995 by the Special Atrocity Courts in 16 districts of Gujarat by the Ahmadabad-based Council for Social Justice exposed the reasons for high acquittal rates in these cases. It revealed that in over 95% of cases, acquittals were due to technical lapses like the investigation being carried out by an officer lower than the rank of Deputy Superintendant of Police or the caste certificate of the victim not being attached with the FIR. In most cases, the courts passed strictures against errant police officials but did not punish any of them as per the Section 4 of the Act that provides for six to 12 months imprisonment.

With the entire justice delivery system being blatantly biased against Dalits, compounded by the present government’s persistent anti-Dalit actions, evidenced from the ban of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT Madras and institutional killing of Rohith Vemula to the cuts in funds for Dalits in component plans, scholarships, and several other intrigues, should Dalits not express their anger?

The media without batting an eyelid during the April 2 Bharat Bandh called to protest the court judgement on the Atrocity Act projected Dalits as having indulged in arson and violence, insinuating that shooting down of nine of them was justified. The Dalits did not indulge in violence without provocation. The fact that the Dalits indulged in such violence and got killed only in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party may also reveals something sinister: it could well be a plan to teach them a lesson so that they never dare to raise their voices again.

It is not the misuse of the Atrocity Act by the Dalits but the gross abuse of Dalits by the entire state machinery and complicit media that got exposed on April 2.

Anand Teltumbde is writer, political analyst and general secretary of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Maharashtra.