It is not often that a court order sparks a huge public outcry, resulting in violence and loss of lives. The recent order of the Supreme Court, directing a few changes in the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 has sparked an outrage in the northern states. But even as Tamil Nadu, a forerunner in fighting for dalit rights, is silent on the issue due to its preoccupation with Cauvery, Neutrino and Sterlite protests, activists say the state has solid reasons to demand for a stronger Act instead of a diluted one. They say the Act has serious loopholes and is reluctantly implemented in the state, with very few cases reaching the conviction stage.
In TN, the conviction rate in cases of atrocities against scheduled tribes is just 11.1 % and in cases of scheduled castes is 7.7 %, as per National Crime Records Bureau data of 2016. Although TN fares better in conviction rate and other parameters of implementation of the Act, compared to its southern counterparts, these numbers are much below the national average.
Organisations like Pattali Makkal Katchi, which have been alleging that the Act is misused by dalits to victimise and threaten non-dalits, say the low conviction rateis proof that most of the cases registered under the Act are false. PMK leader S Ramadoss has been demanding amendment of the Act to prevent its misuse.
But activists disagree. The low conviction rate is due to lack of awareness among dalits on the provisions of the Act, flawed investigation, biased police officers and inefficient prosecution, they argue. "The percentage of misuse of this Act is too minuscule. But the reality is that the extent of atrocities against dalits is hugely disproportionate to the number of cases registered," said dalit writer Stalin Rajangam. Also, the poorest of poor dalits, for whose protection the Act was introduced do not misuse it. On the contrary, they are going to be the most affected because of the dilution of the Act, he said.
The apex court in its verdict on March 20 this year ruled that a preliminary probe should be conducted by a deputy superintendent of police to ascertain the authenticity of the complaint before registering an FIR. However, almost a year ago (March 9, 2017), the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), in its latest report to Parliament had recommended immediate filing of an FIR as a necessity. NCSC noted that there was often delay in registering complaints and that there were instances of complainants approaching the court to get their complaint registered. It also recommended that FIR registrations be made web-enabled so that victims can register FIRs on the website of the district police.
"The supreme court order is against the recommendations, findings and observation of the report," said Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader D Ravikumar. VCK had staged protests against the Supreme Court ruling in a few places. Ravikumar says there was no scope for misuse of the Act. "If at all there is any misuse, it is by the enforcement agencies," he added.
Police officers, however, say that they do come across false complaints. "Such cases are not registered by innocent dalits, but largely by those with political leanings,’’ said a police officer in the western region
According to NCRB’s 2016 data, none of the cases in Tamil Nadu were found to be false — 97 cases were true but did not have proper evidence. In contrast, 723 cases were found to be false in Andhra Pradesh, while 194 and 242 cases were false in Kerala and Telangana respectively
Activists say, in several instances, the accused filed counter complaints against dalit victims to get complaints in their names withdrawn. "The accused files a counter complaint against the dalit, under various other acts. Poor dalits who do not have the legal capacity to handle the counter complaints, opt for an out-of-court settlement," said A Kathir, director of Evidence, an NGO
Kathir says lacunae in the implementation of the existing Act have to be addressed. "There are vigilance and monitoring committees at the state and district levels which are supposed to meet every six month to take stock of cases booked under the SC/ST Act. But these committees are never convened,’’ he added
Executive director of People’s Watch, Henry Tiphagne says the Act should be brought under the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution which gives immunity from judicial scrutiny.