Comfortably numb

The cure is part of the cause in this case; as Dalits avail themselves of the advantages of reservation in India, and awareness of rights increases, the status quo of inter-caste relations in villages faces severe challenges. Increased violence, and increased reporting of incidents of violence, is a natural product. Although Dalit groups have had great success in gaining publicity for their cause, they have consistently failed to hold the Indian government to the standards of existing national and international legislation. There is, in fact, a law in place to fight the violence being visited upon Dalits, but it suffers from neglect.

In 1989, the Government of India passed the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA), which delineates specific crimes against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as "atrocities," and describes strategies and prescribes punishments to counter these acts. The Act attempts to curb and punish violence against Dalits through three broad means. Firstly, it identifies what acts constitute "atrocities." These include both particular incidents of harm and humiliation such as the forced consumption of noxious substances, as well as the systemic violence faced by many Dalits, especially in rural areas. Such systemic violence includes forced labour, denial of access to water and other public amenities, and sexual abuse of Dalit women. Secondly, the Act calls upon all the states to convert an existing sessions court in each district into a special court to try cases registered under the POA. Thirdly, the Act creates provisions for states to declare areas with high levels of caste violence to be "atrocity-prone" and to appoint qualified officers to monitor and maintain law and order.

Unlike its predecessor, the 1955 Civil Rights Act, which only concerned itself with superficial humiliations such as verbal abuse of the lower castes, the POA was a tacit acknowledgement by the government that caste relations are defined by violence, both incidental and systemic. The POA gives Dalits vital ammunition in the form of legal redress for this violence.

Although the POA is a powerful and precise weapon on paper, in practice the Act has suffered from a near-complete failure in implementation. Ironically, the primary obstacles to implementation are the primary enforcers of the Act—the lowest rungs of the police and bureaucracy that form the primary node of interaction between state and society in the rural areas. Policemen have displayed a consistent unwillingness to register offences under the act. This reluctance stems partially from ignorance. According to a 1999 study, nearly a quarter of those government officials charged with enforcing the Act are unaware of its existence.

In most cases, unwillingness to file a First Information Report (FIR) under the Act comes from caste-bias. Upper caste policemen are reluctant to file cases against fellow caste-members because of the severity of the penalties imposed by the Act; most offences are non-bailable and carry minimum punishments of five years imprisonment. Hard work by human rights defenders has slowly begun to decrease this problem. Nevertheless, the staggering scope of the problem demands government intervention before cases can be properly registered under the Act.

A bigger obstacle faces victims who actually manage to lodge a complaint. Failure to follow through with cases is alarmingly apparent at the lowest echelons of the judicial system. The statistics speak for themselves: out of 147,000 POA cases pending in the courts in 1998, only 31,011 were brought to trial. Such delay is endemic to the Indian judicial system. Although the POA mandated the creation of special courts precisely to circumvent this problem, only two states have created separate special courts in accordance with the law. In other states, existing sessions courts have been designated special courts, while still being asked to process their usual caseloads. Since many different Acts require the creation of special courts, such sessions courts are often overloaded with a number of different kinds of "priority" cases, virtually guaranteeing that none of these cases receive the attention they are mandated to receive.

Even if cases make it to trial, the POA also suffers from abysmal rates of conviction. Out of the 31,011 cases tried under the POA in 1998, only a paltry 1,677 instances or 5.4 percent resulted in a conviction and 29,334 ended in acquittal. Compare this to the conviction rate in cases tried under the Indian Penal Code: in 1999, 39.4 percent of cases ended in a conviction and in 2000, 41.8 percent. Judicial delay is just one cause of this low conviction rate; the time lapse between the case being registered and the trial means that witnesses who are often poor and face intimidation in the interim, turn hostile and the case becomes too weak for a conviction. The long wait also results in many plaintiffs losing interest. Judicial bias against Dalits is rampant and unchecked, and court decisions frequently bear the mark of such bias.

Misguided movements
So why has there not been more public outcry about the dismal failings of the POA? Within the government, inefficient monitoring systems have prevented effective action from being taken. Although not statutorily mandated to do so, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (NCSCST) monitors the implementation of the Act. The NCSCST only reports to the central government, although it primarily monitors compliance with the POA in the states. The NCSCST has state offices that report to it, but those are vastly understaffed and only have an advisory relationship to the state legislatures. Such a monitoring system depends on the central government's commitment to Dalit rights for enforcement of the NCSCST's recommendations. The sorry record of the POA is ample evidence that this commitment is lacking.

The structural flaws of the monitoring system have instead led to a lot of futile finger-pointing about the failures of the POA. For example, in 1998, the NCSCST recommended that states conduct awareness programmes through NGOs about the Act for citizens and government officials. In its reply to this recommendation, the central government placed the responsibility for organising awareness programmes with the states. However, there was no indication that the recommendation would be referred to the states, nor was there any provision for follow-up between the central government and the states. Such instances of passing the buck are not exceptional; most of the recommendations, particularly those relating to land reform laws and establishment of special courts, are referred to the states without any provision for follow-up.

The NCSCST is also hobbled by its mandate. Its chairman is not authorised to release funds. Repeated requests from the NCSCST to the central government to increase its funding and staff are either ignored or deflected to various state agencies and then ignored. Similarly, the Commission can also receive and investigate complaints under its powers as a civil court, but cannot enforce its findings because it is not a criminal court. The NCSCST is virtually powerless as a result, and cannot carry out its responsibilities as the monitoring body of the POA.

Outside of the government, the steadily growing movement of NGOs also seems to be misguided. Rather than holding India to its existing legislative commitments to Dalits in the POA, the leading Dalit voices push pie-in-the-sky agendas. The recommendations at the end of the bleak "Black Paper" released by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, include such absurdities as taxing corporations in order to fund Dalit programmes and allocating 20 percent of the GDP of the country in order to fund programmes meant specifically for Dalit welfare– recommendations that underscore what is already in the laws (Article 16 of the Indian Constitution specifically which grants the State the power to reserve government employment placements for members of castes that are not adequately represented in particular fields, The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules of 1995, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993 (1993 Act), among others). Mandating the creation of special courts and the recruitment of a minimum percentage of Dalits in all local police forces, lose their weight in the midst of such impractical recommendations.

Worse yet, the recommendations of the Dalit groups seem to be taken more seriously than the recommendations of government bodies. The Bhopal Declaration of January 2002, a set of demands issued at the end of a conference of Dalit rights groups, included a demand for "a system of collective punishment… as oppressors enjoy community support and protection and escape the law". Such a measure clearly circumvents the concept of individual rights that is the basis of the Indian justice system. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh's zeal in implementing such extra-legal measures is likely to result in a backlash against Dalit rights.

The Prevention of Atrocities Act is a powerful piece of legislation. If only the many voices professing to be working on behalf of the Dalits of India could work effectively to make sure that the Central Government were held to its promises.

– Human Rights Features
(by arrangement)

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