“The taste of anything can be changed. But poison cannot be changed into nectar.” – BR Ambedkar
Caste has been a permanent speed-breaker in the progress of our country, and 29 years after a law to protect the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes from atrocities came into existence, the Supreme Court diluted one of its provisions.
On 20 March, the apex court issued a slew of guidelines that would protect public servants and private individuals from arbitrary and immediate arrest under the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
While the Central government urged the top court to seek recall of its judgment, nine people lost their lives and dozens were injured as Dalit protests during a day-long nation-wide shutdown on Monday, 2 April, snowballed into violent clashes.
Amid anger and outrage over the dilution of one of India’s most progressive laws, what effect will the judgment have on the growing number of atrocities that afflict the country’s lower castes?
The 1989 Act, which was amended in 2015, punished casteist slurs and denied anticipatory bail to the accused. Making the 1989 Act more stringent, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, added that actions like tonsuring of head, moustache, or similar acts which are derogatory to the dignity of members of SCs and STs, will now also be treated as atrocities.
With the objective of eradicating inherent discriminatory attitudes against the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955 was initially passed in Parliament in 1955. In 1976 it was renamed the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act. Owing to the ineffectiveness of the Act, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act came into existence in 1989 with its Statement of Objects and Reasons stating:
“Despite various measures to improve the socio-economic conditions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, they remain vulnerable. They are denied a number of civil rights. They are subjected to various offences, indignities, humiliations and harassment… A special legislation to check and deter crimes against them committed by the non-scheduled Castes and non-Scheduled tribes has, therefore, become necessary”.