"Even after 71 years of Independence, we are being tortured and victimized in every way by the governments and fooled by mainstream political parties,” says Dhanya Raman, a leading Dalit activist in Kerala. “The perfect example for that is even after land reforms were initiated some 50 years ago in the state, we Dalits still live in 27,000 colonies with limited amenities and resources. So, we don’t want their support now.”
She was responding to a query on how Dalit activists perceived the support extended by mainstream political to the hartal observed by 30 Dalit organizations on Monday in Kerala to protest against the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court which dilute the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Supreme Court.
“Mainstream political parties want to hijack our protest. They look at vote-bank angle. We don’t want that. We are capable of leading our protest alone. We are around 4,000,000 in Kerala and 30 crore in India,” Dhanya adds.
Dalit organisations are holding a 12-hour long hartal to protest against the dilution of the SC/ST Act and the killing of 12 people in the Bharat Bandh called for by Dalits across the country.
Indian National Congress, its youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party and a few Leftist organisations have extended their support to the Dalit protest in Kerala.
While the Congress held a solidarity meeting at its state and district offices, the Muslim Youth League, in a statement, said it would support to the hartal.
Meanwhile, Left parties, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Communist Party of India, have said that they will not support the hartal.
According to Rupesh Kumar, a Dalit activist and filmmaker, the judiciary was the last resort for them. However, he says, unfortunately, the judiciary is also becoming ‘Brahminicall’ and was looking down on Dalit issues.
“If not, why do they want to dilute the SC/ST Atrocities Act 1989? They call the other party in such cases as ‘innocents’ and see the Dalits at fault. Additionally, they have complicated the procedure to ensure justice. So, such a kind of hartal is inevitable. We too belong to this country. We are marginalized and sidelined. But we don’t want to give up our rights and we will fight till we see a positive result,” Rupesh says.
Meanwhile, in Kochi, Dalit leader M Geethanandan and 25 of his supporters were detained as part of the protest. “Our arrest is an undemocratic act,” Geethanandan declared.
On March 20, the Supreme Court said that the arrest of an accused under the SC/ST Act is not mandatory and recourse to coercive action would be only after preliminary inquiry and sanction by the competent authority. This was in contrast to the Act allowing immediate arrest of suspected offenders upon the registration of a complaint.
The Dalit organizations have contended that the judgment, and the observations in it, would result in a toothless law and would leave them unprotected against the atrocities committed against them.
However, while agreeing to hear the review petition, the Supreme Court Bench has declined to suspend its order.
It clarified that its order was aimed at protecting those innocent, not undermining Dalit rights.
The Bench also observed that 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, as has been found on several occasions in decisions referred to above”.
Another observation by the Bench that caused much consternation was “it is necessary to express concern that working of the Atrocities Act should not result in perpetuating casteism”.
Mini Mohan, a sociologist in Kerala, said that the current judgment would make it even more difficult for Dalit victims of caste-based violence and discrimination to get justice.
“It is clearly a dilution of the Act. More Dalits will be in trouble now,” Mini added.
A 2014 survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), Delhi, found that one in four Indians practise untouchability.
And according to the National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 40,801 incidents of atrocities against Scheduled Castes were recorded in 2016 across the country. This against the 38,670 cases recorded in 2016.
As for Kerala, the number of cases of atrocities against Scheduled Castes was 696 in 2015. It shot up to 810 in 2016.