Caste Atrocities? The Big Picture of the Supreme Court Judgment

by Sufiya Pathan

Opposition to the Supreme Court judgment on the Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act revolves around the premise that it is against the interests of the Scheduled Castes (SC). Does placing some checks on the non-bailable detention for a PoA charge of any kind (whether a serious charge or not), compromise the interests of the SCs? Why so? Does upholding SC interests require compromising the rights and interests of citizens at large? And if we do take this route what kinds of ripples are we setting off in society? Surely, these are the kinds of questions that we need to discuss in the wake of the judgment. Yet, the most widespread reactions that have emerged vis-à-vis the verdict are stories of misuse of the act from some corners and vulgar chest thumping from political parties falling over each other in their bid to “fight for the SCs” while really just fighting amongst themselves.

While the upcoming elections in some states and the national elections of 2019 appear to provide the immediate context for agitation against the Supreme Court’s decision, digging deeper reveals systemic problems and concerns about the long-term interests of the SCs for whom so many tears are being shed for their ostensible protection. This article points to at least three additional scenarios where we have to look closely to assess why we have a worrying structural problem on our hands. Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, the statistical picture provides no grounds to assume that SCs are subject to any more violence or crime than other segments of the population. Yet the very same statistics are used to project an image of India as a country ridden with caste violence and discrimination. Meanwhile, the continued set of attempts to build a picture of SCs as a uniquely and disproportionately targeted group in India is building a new type of resentment against the very same groups for whom protective measures have been spuriously justified. This does not bode well for India or the SCs.

Purported rise in atrocities against SCs

Figures have been bandied about in the Press about rising atrocities against SCs as the context for ‘SC anger’ (see, for instance, these articles in the Times of India and The Week). The simple truth is that this country does not produce any reliable documentation of atrocities against SCs. Why so? The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) annually reports the total number of cases registered under the PoA and PCR (Protection of Civil Rights) Acts. As per legal definition, these are the only cases that qualify as ‘atrocities’. However, scholars and activists have always been dissatisfied at the ‘low level of reportage’ under these sections and have rejected these figures as unreliable measures of caste atrocities in the country. Yet, large figures are constantly quoted in the press and by caste scholars in relation to atrocities. How so? Very simple.

Since 1995 the NCRB was asked to report separately on the total crime faced by ‘vulnerable sections’ of society. Thus, total crime faced by senior citizens, children, women and SC/STs is recorded and reported annually by the NCRB. The established practice today is to take the total figure of crime against SC/STs and report it as ‘atrocities’. To reiterate, since figures under the PoA and PCR are considered low and therefore unreliable, in order to reflect a ‘truer’ picture, the total number of crimes against SC/STs are quoted as atrocities. You don’t have just yellow journalism to blame for this. Even the official website of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment follows exactly this strategy in its annual reports.

There are multiple problems with such an approach that make it not just unreliable, but outrageously deceptive. To list just a few of the problems – these cases would include those where both victims and perpetrators belong to SC groups; they would include crimes that have no relation to caste and do not establish that the perpetrator even had any knowledge of the victim’s caste – a pre-requisite to making a case of ‘atrocity’; they would include categories of crime that could not logically be envisaged as ‘atrocities’. The need for special legislation covering caste atrocities was felt because it was seen as an especially obnoxious kind of crime. While it was never clear what exactly atrocities referred to, it was clear that the violence was disturbing not because of the volume of the crimes against SCs, but because of the special nature of the crimes.[1]

Yet, today, this rationale behind the PoA finds itself absolutely overturned, and all crime against SC/STs, regardless of who has committed the crime, is being categorized as atrocity. Remember that this route is taken because the statistics under PoA and PCR are considered low and, therefore, unreliable. Yet, if we take this route and deem any crime against an SC to be a measure of atrocities, we are faced with an even greater hurdle to understanding the basic claims about caste atrocities.

One of the basic claims about caste atrocities is that caste violence is extremely widespread and that lower castes face greater violence than any other groups in society. These statistics, inflated as they are, should be in a position to give some credence to this claim. Yet, if we study these statistics, we are forced to reject the claim as absolutely baseless!

How so? Some simple mathematics will tell us. The total number of incidents of crime against SCs in 2016 was 40,801. Of these, 5926 crimes were reported under the PoA act. The figure for total incidents of crime in India in 2016 is 48,31,515. The SC population comprises about 17% of the population. If 17% of the population faces 0.84% of the total incidence of crime, then 83% faces the remaining 98.16% of the crime in India. That means each percent of the SC population faces about 0.049% of total crime, while every percent of the non-SC population faces 1.18% of the total incidence of crime. Thus, non-SCs face about 23 times more crime than SCs.

Would we really want to support the claim that these statistics tell us anything significant about caste atrocities? Yet, scholars, journalists, activists, and government agencies, all use these statistics with impunity and with very little evidence of basic mathematical reasoning!

In all this bandying about of numbers, what is lost sight of is precisely the problems that the PoA legislation was framed to address in the first place. These statistics certainly do not help us understand what the problem of caste violence was or is, or explain anything that could help form solutions. Yet, our scholars and journalists, who ought to be engaged in helping us understand the problem, instead appear unable to show the mathematical skills of a 10 year old.

International attention

A Pew research study on ‘global restrictions on religion’ 2015 placed India fourth on its world-wide scale of ‘social hostilities’. India came in after Syria, Nigeria and Iraq, doing only negligibly better than these countries on its scale of social hostilities. Why so? Where is the kind of wide-scale violence that Syria, Nigeria and Iraq have witnessed in order to justify giving India this rating? Who in India has been subject to such systematic violence as the Christians in Nigeria, for instance? No need to go far for the answer. The report says, “Hindus were harassed in just 18 countries, fewer than some other groups. But the vast majority of the world’s Hindus (95%) live in India, where harassment of Hindus by both government and social groups was reported in 2015. Members of the lowest Hindu castes, also known as Dalits, often faced obstacles to [access] basic government institutions and services such as education and health care. The United Nations also reported systematic abuse of Dalits by individuals, and many of the perpetrators of these crimes were not prosecuted by the government.”

Since when does the be-heading of 100s of individuals belonging to a particular religious group put one country almost at par with another country where a section of the population faced trouble accessing government services? Besides, which section in India, except the moneyed classes, do not face difficulties accessing government services? Yet, this does not alarm either our political classes or our activists. India has systematically built up an international reputation for the abuse of its SC population, which for the most part is built on inflated numbers and reports like the one cited above – in other words, on thin air.

Yet, the UN annual report on religious intolerance 2017 relies on Pew as its source for India in order to press for international recognition of violence against “Hindus”, which basically refers to “caste violence”. Coming at the heels of the special attention paid to caste discrimination by the UN Special Rapporteur on minority rights in 2016, we can be sure India is going to hear more about this internationally.

So, here’s the deal. We in India have no reliable data to talk about caste violence. Yet, we loosely talk about it in puffed up figures that would not stand up to a child’s scrutiny. The world is listening in and such loose talk will cost India dearly.

Social unrest and anti-SC sentiment

While NGOs and intellectuals build their careers by shedding crocodile tears for SCs, and the political classes scamper for their votes, of greatest concern in the contemporary scenario is not India’s international image. Of greatest concern is that the kinds of policies that government after government is upholding vis-à-vis the SCs in the name of their interests is systematically building a dangerous anti-SC sentiment in the country. Legislation like the PoA Act was not built on the basis of popular SC campaigns or movements. In fact, even today, most of the so-called SC groups are really Marxist groups, not mobilisations based on any kind of SC movement.

But, for the first time in history, there is a popular movement against the PoA that was also directed against the SCs – the Maratha movement. No matter what kind of violence India has witnessed in the name of ‘caste violence’ so far, it has never been targeted at SCs as a whole. It was always particular jatis or clusters of jatis in particular regions that came into conflict with each other. Even though the PoA Act was never a plank to bring SCs together, it has become the plank that builds resentment against them as a whole.

Ironically, even government reports have warned against the effects of the PoA in society and how it was actually acting against the interests of SCs. A Karnataka government report in 2008 baldly stated how the PoA was affecting inter-community relations, especially in rural Karnataka: “Instead of developing a good relationship based on mutual dignity, a fear psychosis is making many people of the other sections to refrain from any transactions with the [SC] people, adversely affecting the livelihood opportunities for the poor village living persons dependent on farm labour.”[2]

While the Supreme Court verdict is seen as going against SC interests, it is perhaps the only time over the past four decades that anyone has dared to do anything that is really in the long-term interests of the SCs. The truth is that SCs are ordinary citizens of this country. There is absolutely no reason why upholding their interests should bring us in conflict with the interests of the Indian citizens at large. What will the ordinary citizens of this country choose to do when their long-term interests are being systematically trampled upon in the name of short-term gains by every power-wielding class in this country? The answer to this question will shape the future of India.

 

[1] Special Correspondent. ‘Rising Crimes against Scheduled Castes’. Economic and Political Weekly, XV:32, 1980, p.1336.

[2] Bhat, H.K. An Evaluation Study on the Atrocities and Compensation given to victims of Atrocities on Scheduled Castes in Karnataka– Report submitted to the Director, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Research Institute, (Government of Karnataka), Bangalore, October 2008, p. 345.

 

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