Both casteism and ?reverse casteism? must go

By Sudheendra Kulkarni

Indians have a tendency to look at a social problem only from one angle, an angle we have grown used to or conforms to our beliefs and biases. Social issues, however, do not lend themselves to such unidirectional understanding; they are often complex in their causes and manifestations. While some facts may be easily visible from one angle, facts of contrary significance can also be seen if we care to look at the issue from a different perspective. It is necessary to understand deep-rooted social issues in an integral manner.

One such big Indian problem that calls for a holistic understanding is casteism—in particular, the injustice and discrimination that people belonging to the scheduled castes and tribes are subjected to by the so-called ‘upper castes’. Atrocities against the SC and ST communities are an undeniable reality and a shameful blot on Hindu society. Such behaviour cannot continue or be condoned in a civilised society. The guilty must be punished in a swift and deterrent way. The Indian constitution has strong provisions (such as Article 17, which criminalises untouchability) to protect members of the SC and ST communities and other weaker sections of society. In 1989, the Rajiv Gandhi government introduced a new and stronger legislation, the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

But is there also another side to this reality? Is the Act being misused, to a considerable extent, against innocents belonging to the non-SC castes? And if this too is a reality, shouldn’t the victims of such wilful misuse get protection under Article 14 of the constitution (“The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law and equal protection of laws”)? Our constitution guarantees this fundamental right to every citizen, irrespective of caste, creed, gender or language.

Modi government filed the review petition to show it is not “anti-Dalit”

Sadly, when the Supreme Court took cognisance of this reality in its ruling on March 20, and introduced certain guidelines to prevent misuse of the Act, all hell, proverbially, broke loose. All political parties, ruling and opposition, came together to slam the apex court’s verdict. Feeling the heat of the allegation that it is “anti-Dalit”, the Narendra Modi government quickly filed a review petition. Nothing better was expected from the BJP, which is allowing expediency to trump over principles at a frightening rate. Alarm bells are already ringing for the ruling party, even though the 2019 Lok Sabha polls are a year away. Who wants to lose a vote bank?

However, even after the government announced its decision to file the review petition, certain ‘Dalit’ groups organised a ‘Bharat bandh’ on April 2 to protest against the court’s ruling. Nine people were killed, and valuable public-property was damaged, in angry protests in many states. This show of vandalism masquerading as a cry for “social justice” did not impress the Supreme Court, which rightly decided not to accept the government’s plea for a stay on its ruling. The court will, however, hear the review petition soon.

Provoked by the agitation by ‘Dalits’, some ‘upper caste’ organisations gave a call for their own ‘Bharat bandh’ on April 10. Barring some stray incidents in some north Indian states, their protest was a damp squib. Nevertheless, their demand—that reservations should be based on economic criteria and not on caste—is sure to become more vocal in the years to come.

It is unfortunate that political parties, and also a large section of the print and TV media, have not bothered to examine the merits of the Supreme Court’s ruling. The merit is self-evident to all unprejudiced and justice-loving observers. Has the court ruled that the Act be scrapped? No. Has it rendered it “toothless”, and made it ineffective, as has been argued by all ‘Dalit’ intellectuals and leaders? No. All that it has done is to ensure that the ‘teeth’ of the law do not bite innocent people and, no less important, the flaws in the law do not ‘perpetuate casteism’ in Indian society. It has done so by (a) affirming that it cannot remain “a mute spectator when the law is being misused to frame innocents in criminal cases”; and (b) laying down stringent guidelines (“no automatic arrest”) to prevent its misuse.

Critics of the Supreme Court’s ruling, who claim that misuse of the Act is an ‘exception’, ignore inconvenient facts. The court itself referred to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2015, which shows that about 15% of the total complaints were false, and 75% of the cases resulted in acquittals or withdrawals.

Supporters of ‘Dalit’ protests ignore inconvenient facts

Here is a highly inconvenient fact for ‘Dalit’ agitators and their supporters. As reported by The Times of India on April 4, none other than Mayawati’s own government in UP had, in 2007, issued two orders highlighting that “the Atrocities Act was being misused to implicate innocents”. Thus, the government of the most important ‘Dalit’ leader in India had asked the state police to do exactly what the Supreme Court has said in its ruling—not to arrest anyone merely on the basis of a complaint, but to first conduct an initial probe to find out prima facie guilt.

Another inconvenient fact: when mammoth, but entirely peaceful, ‘Maratha Kranti Morcha’ rallies took place in almost every town and city in Maharashtra a year ago, their first demand was to scrap the Act. Why? Because of an incident involving the gangrape and murder of a minor Maratha girl. An isolated instance in a single village could not have brought lakhs of protesters on the streets. Notably, Sharad Pawar and Raj Thackeray, two important political leaders from Maharashtra, publicly said that the Act should be modified to prevent its misuse.

As someone who has been cataloguing actual, verifiable cases of misuse of the Act, let me present a sample here of how innocent victims suffer fear, humiliation and harassment.

In 2014, a case was registered against Dr T.P. Lahane, a reputed eye surgeon and dean of the government-run J.J. Hospital in Mumbai. Although he himself belongs to a nomadic tribe, a sweeper working in the hospital accused him of making a ‘casteist’ slur. After three years, he was acquitted by the trial court.

The Parle Tilak Vidyalaya Association runs some of the best colleges in Mumbai. It was established about 100 years ago by the followers of Lokmanya Tilak after his death. A former principal of one of its institutions, Dahanukar College, was falsely implicated in a case under the Act. It took 15 long years for him to be exonerated.

An ex-principal of Mumbai’s Sathaye College has been a victim of not one but two cases under the Act. In 2006, she issued several memos to a lab assistant for dereliction of duty and undisciplined behavior. He filed a case accusing her of making a “casteist” remark. The case, which ran for three years, ended with her acquittal. In another case in 2015, she was accused of “stealing” the fees from SC-OBC students. Fearing arrest, she had to avoid staying in her own house before getting anticipatory bail. Curiously, the government official who made the accusation has not appeared in court even once so far, nor furnished any evidence, although she has had to appear many appearances. She is sure of being acquitted, but none will be penalised for wrongfully using the Act against her.

M.P. Sadekar, a 78-year-old advocate (one of the founder-members of the Shiv Sena) has acted as an independent enquiry officer in many such cases. He introduced me to the persons who suffered in four of them. In one, a college lecturer, a habitual drunkard, fell in the classroom under the influence of alcohol. In another, a clerk had embezzled college funds. In a third, a teacher in a school for the deaf was suspended for physical assault on a student. In a fourth, an attendant in an engineering college was caught red-handed in a corrupt act. In all these cases, the Act was invoked when the authorities initiated disciplinary action. In each of them, the accusation was the same: use of casteist remarks. Each of them fell through. Such cases abound all over India, including many involving blackmail.

Sadly, reverse casteism—the phenomenon of some people belonging to SCs behaving in a casteist manner with those belonging to “upper castes” by abusing the protection given by the Act—is something rarely investigated by the media, studied impartially by academics, and highlighted by politicians. Doing so carries the risk of being branded “anti-Dalit”.

Critics of the Supreme Court ruling are pointing out that the conviction rate in the cases under the Act is very low. They are right in saying so. However, low rates of conviction do not justify wilful misuse of a law. Moreover, if complaints do not conclude in convictions, the responsibility lies with the executive, which has to improve the efficiency, sensitivity, and impartiality of the police. The higher executive cannot transfer its responsibility onto the higher judiciary.

Therefore, the Supreme Court would be failing the enlightened Indian constitution if it entertained the government’s review petition and withdrew its own welcome ruling.

Sudheendra Kulkarni was a close aide of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A version of this article appeared in The Indian Express on April 4, 2018. 

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