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Why do Dalits continue to suffer atrocities?

Despite the equality granted by the Constitution of India and the Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities – PoA) Act 1989, and amendments to it in 2015, 2018 and 2019, there has been a rise in atrocities in recent years on Dalits, comprising both Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, says Rina Mukherji, who decodes a Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network Report in this regard

Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Athavale, quoting the National Crime Records Bureau Report (2021), told Parliament that there was a 9.3 per cent increase in atrocities against Dalits from 2018 to 2020. The crimes include rape, murder and lynching in the name of honour and ‘insult to caste privilege’ for such innocuous things such as riding a horse, wearing footwear once associated with royalty, sitting cross-legged in the presence of upper caste men and touching food at a feast.

With the rising clamour for cow protection, there have been instances of Scheduled Caste people being ‘mistakenly attacked’ for carrying the carcasses for skinning and tanning, too. Dalit women and girls are often kidnapped, raped and then killed by upper-caste men to ‘teach errant Dalit families a lesson’, and warn them against demanding their rights. Two years ago, two sisters aged 14 and 17, were raped, strangulated and hung from trees in Lakhimpur-Kheri in Uttar Pradesh.

The worst and highest prevalence of such crimes are reported from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (in that order). In the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, too, hate crimes against Dalits have been reported.

Investigating the causes behind this escalation of crimes against Dalits, the Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network (DHRD Net) – a coalition of 1000 Dalit organisations – in collaboration with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) and the National Council of Women Leaders (NCWL) conducted an investigation into the working and implementation of the PoA Act. Primary and secondary data was collected from across 15 states, alongside responses garnered through RTI applications filed with the Nodal Officer for SC/ST PoA Act, the Home Department, District Courts, State Crime Records Bureaus, and the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, and the National Commission for SCs/STs.

The study found that crimes against SCs had increased by 177.6 per cent between 1991 and 2021. In the case of STs, the increase was 1112 per cent. The growth in atrocities, it was found, outpaced the growth in population of these communities, as also the general rise in crimes registered in India.

Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan have only 36 per cent of India’s population and yet account for two-thirds of the crimes against SCs/STs. On the flip side, only 12 states and Union Territories have been declared atrocity-prone areas. Uttar Pradesh, which accounts for the highest number of recorded criminal cases, is not one of them.

Stalled investigation, delayed justice

Looking into why a significant number of cases were stalled at the investigation stage, taking months and years to even appear in court, with the pendency of cases filed under the PoA Act being higher than those relating to other crimes, the DHRD found that the rate of charge-sheeting itself in PoA cases was far lower than for other crimes. There were clear delays in the investigation conducted for atrocities-related cases, with trials being delayed because prosecutors delayed the presentation of evidence in courts. Data also pointed to overburdening of state prosecutors appointed to handle SC/ST cases.

In spite of the PoA Act mandating that the chargesheet in atrocities cases be prepared within 60 days, it was done only well after that time-limit in 46.68 per cent of the cases. Telangana had the worst record in this regard, with chargesheets in 80 per cent of the cases being prepared only after 80 days. In fact, the average time taken for filing a chargesheet was found to be 100 days, or nearly 3.5 months, all over India.

Even when the investigation was completed, the police were found to declare crimes filed under the PoA Act ‘false”, a “mistake of law” or “civil dispute”, in 76 per cent of the cases. In contrast, this kind of dismissal was found to occur in just 25 per cent of crimes filed under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and 15 per cent of Special and Local Laws (SLL) crimes.

Some of the chapters in the report (above and below).

Analysis of data also indicated that cases involving crimes against the SC/ST communities remained pending for longer than other cases, with only one out of three crimes ending in conviction. The conviction rate was just 30-45 per cent, with even heinous crimes like rape and murder showing a mere 50 per cent rate of conviction. The conviction rate was found to be highest in Uttar Pradesh, while the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala and Telangana showed abysmal rates of conviction in atrocity-related cases.

The PoA Act mandates the setting up of special or exclusive courts for dealing with cases filed under the Act, to reduce pendency and increase rates of conviction. Courts are mandated to conduct daily hearings and complete a trial within two years when dealing with PoA cases. But, in actual fact, there are glaring lacunae on the ground.

In Bihar, the presence of an exclusive court does little to improve the abysmally low conviction rate, which stands at 4.79 per cent. This is because the ‘exclusive courts’ do not ‘exclusively’ attend to atrocity-related cases. They not only hear other cases, but prioritise them over atrocity cases. In Karnataka and Gujarat, the study found that exclusive courts overwhelmingly held more hearings of non-atrocity cases than of cases filed under the PoA Act. The PoA accords the right to appeal judgments. Yet, rulings in only 6.69 per cent of the cases were appealed against in higher courts.

Missing high-power committees, niggardly compensation

The high-power Vigilance and Monitoring Committee chaired by the chief minister, meant to look into crimes against SCs/STs is mandated to meet twice a year. But between 2016 and 2020, all states (except Gujarat) failed to ensure this. In many states, the committee was not even formed. Similarly, a third of the districts in the country have not formed the mandated District Vigilance and Monitoring Committees. At the sub-divisional level, 19 states and Union Territories had not formed these committees. Even when such committees were formed, it was found that they do not conduct annual meetings as envisaged. Between 2016 and 2020, less than 5 per cent of the expected number of annual meetings in all sub-divisions had been conducted.

Under the PoA Act, the first tranche of payment of compensation is mandated to be released within seven days of registration of the first information report (FIR). But this occurs in less than 10 per cent of atrocity cases. In Madhya Pradesh, none of the 15, 935 victims of atrocities received compensation on time. In Uttar Pradesh, only seven out of 47,851 cases received compensation within a week. Right to Information (RTI) responses show that most victims do not receive the second tranche (after the chargesheet) and third tranche (after conviction) of compensation payment. Neither the victims nor their relatives are likely to get travel and maintenance costs, although both of these are mandated under the PoA Act. In cases where travel and maintenance are received, the amounts are abysmally low.

In view of the above findings, the researchers recommend that:

  • States identify atrocity-prone areas within their jurisdiction using appropriate methodologies
  • The number of investigation officers be increased for immediate action and conviction in atrocities cases
  • Police be sensitised to provisions of the PoA Act
  • Regular monitoring be undertaken to ensure chargesheets are filed within the stipulated time, as mandated under the PoA Act
  • Vacancies in special/exclusive Courts be immediately filled, and special/exclusive courts prioritise hearings for atrocities cases
  • Compensation payments to victims of atrocities be expedited in keeping with provisions of the PoA Act, and follow-up of such payments be done, especially as regards the first, second and third tranches, until the final verdict
  • Travel allowance and compensation be enhanced to enable self-employment for victims

(The writer is a senior journalist who lives in Pune.)