There is mayhem on the streets. People are baying for blood; several killed and many more injured; trains blocked; vehicles set ablaze; buses torched; stones pelted; commercial establishments forced to down their shutters; vandalism and loot reported; public property damaged; exams postponed; bus services suspended; mobile and internet services curtailed; roads blocked; curfew imposed; protestors clashed with police; tear gas lobbed and police used canes to disperse unruly mobs: This is India for you: in one single day nine people died and thousands arrested.
Except for the capital city of New Delhi, in the northern states of Jharkhand, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in north and many parts of central India, life came to a virtual halt. The Centre rushed para military forces and Rapid Action Force (RAF) was pressed into action to maintain peace.
The government was caught in the cross fire in what emanated in the apex court less than a fortnight ago.
It was late last month that the Supreme Court observed that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 is being misused. The word used was “blackmail” . The Court further issued guidelines to protect both public servants and private employees.
The court directed that public servants can only be arrested with the written permission of their appointing authority. In the case of private employees, the Senior Superintendent of Police concerned should allow it.
“Innocent citizens are termed accused, which is not intended by the legislature. The legislature never intended to use the Atrocities Act as an instrument to blackmail or to wreak personal vengeance,” the Supreme Court said.
“The Act cannot be converted into a charter for exploitation or oppression by any unscrupulous person or by the police for extraneous reasons against other citizens. Any harassment of an innocent citizen, irrespective of caste or religion, is against the guarantee of the Constitution. This court must enforce such a guarantee. Law should not result in caste hatred,” the Court held.
The apex court also determined that a preliminary inquiry should be conducted before the FIR is registered to check whether the case falls within the parameters of the Atrocities Act and if it is frivolous or motivated.
The judgment, as interpreted by Dalit caste groups alleged that there was dilution of the SC/ST Act and said that the ruling took away the strongest instrument Dalits had. The ruling, they said, makes the law “completely ineffective and toothless”.
When a group of MPs met the Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad the following day against the dilution of the SC/ST Act by the courts, Prasad said that the government was yet to examine the Supreme Court judgment. The request to the government should act swiftly and file a review petition did not cut ice. At least then. That the government has done that in the aftermath of the violence is another matter. By then several Dalit outfits had given the call for a Bharat Bandh or a complete shut down. There was blood on the streets and as BJP MP Udit Raj said “accumulated anger” of the community was at full play. There are also charges that the BJP government did not represent the arguments against dilution effectively that led the Supreme Court to dilute the original Act. Also they put the blame at the doorstep of the government for moving in “so late” to file a review petition despite being warned by its own MPs of the dangers of not moving in and signaling to the Dalits that the BJP government is there to safeguard their interests.
It was only on Monday, some 12 days later, that the Government woke up to move the apex Court seeking review of its recent judgment by which safeguards were put on the provisions for immediate arrest under the SC/ST Act.
The government, in its review petition, told the Supreme Court that its March 20 verdict will violate Article 21 of the Constitution for the SC/ST communities and sought restoration of the provisions the Act.
Meanwhile the Bharat Bandh had done the damage. In fact, the anger spilled on the streets is more against the BJP government, its tardy pace and its intent rather than it being directed at the judiciary.
That the BJP is anti Dalit is a given but the government’s lack of response as the Dalits see its inaction or delayed action has added fuel to the fire. So whatever the BJP may wish the community to believe the fact remains that there is a trust deficit between the protagonists namely the BJP and the Dalits. Opposition apart, even the party MPs are peeved at the way the government has handled rather mishandled the current crisis. It should have, they say, at least “appeared to act” than been caught napping on the issue. In this context examples are being cited of cases like Karti Chidambaram’s arrest when the law enforcing agencies have moved in swiftly because the government wanted to settle political scores. Against this backdrop they find little justification in Prasad’s contention of “government examining the Supreme Court judgment”.
The bandh the way it has panned out has a potential danger of spilling over in the future. With elections to several states on anvil and the general elections due early next year, the Dalits can be used as pawns by political parties for their own end. For the BJP, the Dalit vote is crucial and it can ill afford to alienate them. It has worked hard to shun its upper caste image and Dalits moving away on the eve of elections could harm the BJP and cause a major dent in its electoral prospects. So even if protests die down, the anger will not and that is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to address: how to keep the Dalits within the BJP fold and ensure that they are satisfied. That the Congress and the BSP are stoking the fires is a given. Rahul Gandhi has said that “Keeping Dalits at the lowest rung of Indian society is in the DNA of the RSS/BJP. Whoever dares challenge this position is suppressed with violence.” The BSP is also cashing in on the Dalit anger and will do what it can to wean them away and consolidate that vote in its favour.
While Dalits have traditionally been supportive of the Congress, they have shifted to other parties including the BJP.
Dalit outreach has been high on Modi’s agenda since he became prime minister.
And he does not want them to lose faith in him, especially at this point in time. The party in any case faces many challenges and could well do without simmering discontent of the Dalits.
As of now the odds seemed to be stacked against the ruling dispensation and despite the overtly condemnation of violence that politicians are publicly condemning, the fact is that it makes political sense to fan the anger and discontent and shift focus from the court ruling to the apathy of the government.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (firstname.lastname@example.org)