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Why atrocities against dalits and adivasis continue

Several legislations have been enacted for the protection of the scheduled castes and tribes. And yet violence and discrimination against them continues. This is hardly surprising, says K S Subramanian, since the police resorts to various machinations to discourage registration of cases, dilutes the seriousness of the offences, shields the accused persons, and often inflicts the violence itself

Denial of justice to dalits (scheduled castes) and adivasis (scheduled tribes) and violence directed at them continues in India today despite official policies and declarations to the contrary. Considerable physical violence is inflicted on members of these deprived and marginalised communities as substantiated by official reports. Policing, far from being ‘the professional imposition of a coherent moral consensus on society’ is an intensely political activity with policemen often facilitating and participating in the violence not just against these two communities but against minorities, other weaker sections and women.  

In 1969, following the emergence of the Naxalite movement, the research and policy division of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) brought out a report warning that the green revolution could turn into a red revolution in the absence of adequate agrarian reforms benefiting the dalits and adivasis concentrated in the agrarian sector. Not enough action was taken and the Naxalites were suppressed with state violence. The British-trained bureaucracy preferred to act on precedents from colonial experience rather than appreciating the real causes of agrarian tensions.  

In 1986, the 28th report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) made a frank assessment of the adverse impact of development policies on  tribal communities, which aggravated inherited inequities while conferring limited benefits on sections of these communities. The action taken was again inadequate.  

In 2008, the Experts’ Group report to the Planning Commission on ‘development challenges in extremist-affected areas’ made a profound assessment of the causes and nature of the growing Maoist violence and also made serious recommendations, which seem to have been bypassed. Instead, the government is deploying massive paramilitary forces to tackle the violence despite disappointing results from this course of action in the past. The cult of violence is thus spreading, opening up a qualitatively new stage in official conflict management in India.    

Dalits and adivasis account for about a quarter of the Indian population (over 250 million); they are the primary victims of the ongoing development process. The Constitution provides for special steps for their economic development and social amelioration. In the 1970s, the Special Component Plan for the Dalits and the Tribal Sub Plan for the tribal communities were formulated by the MHA, then the nodal agency for these communities. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, amended and tightened the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955. In 1979 a Civil Rights Cell was set up in the MHA. In the 1990s, two separate central ministries for the development and protection of dalits and adivasis were created. However, the problems inherited from a complicated past escaped comprehensive discussion and attention in the right perspective.

Initially, the indicators of violence were major crimes such as murder, rape, grievous hurt, arson and ‘other offences’ as defined in the Indian Penal Code and included offences under the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act, 1955. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 used the term ‘atrocity’ to describe offences against members of these two communities by non-SC/STs. The element of caste/tribe was a key factor in the definition. ‘Atrocity’, in the new law, invited higher punishment than offences under the IPC. Before the enactment of the SCs and STs (POA) Act 1989, crime figures from police sources were collected by the Government of India from the state governments. 

The increasing violence against dalits and adivasis was attributed by the 28th report of the Commissioner for SCs and STs (1986):

  • Unresolved disputes over allotment of government land or distribution of surplus land.
  • Tension over non-payment or underpayment of minimum wages.
  • Backlash against increasing awareness among SC/STs of their rights and privileges under the Constitution and other laws. 

In 1990, the National Commission on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes found that the main causes of ‘atrocities’ were land disputes, alienation of tribal land, bonded labour, indebtedness, and non-payment of minimum wages. The implementation of land reforms created animosity between castes, which was more virulent when the land allotted to dalits and adivasis was fertile and well-irrigated. Non-tribals found illicit methods of evading the law to acquire tribal land. The predatory expansion of non-tribals into tribal areas and the dispossession of tribals through fraud or other means was a continuous source of violence, crime, and atrocities against tribals.

The Commission emphasised the importance of a responsive police administration. The dalits and adivasis were handicapped by poverty, illiteracy, economic dependence and ignorance of the law. If prejudices against them and their social disabilities existed in the police machinery and the magistracy then the benefits of the protective and other legislations could not be realised. Thus a responsive police administration was a pre-requisite for ensuring that the communities availed of the benefits meant for them under the law.

The case studies cited in the National Commission’s report, however, revealed disquieting features such as delay in reporting crimes against SCs and STs, or failure to register such crimes, delay in visits to the scene of the offence and delays in chargesheeting the accused. Only IPC and CrPC sections were usually cited in chargesheets, omitting the provisions of social legislations. Cases took ages to be disposed of in court and the number of acquittals was very high. Often, the guardians of the law were themselves perpetrators of ‘atrocities’. The study took note of five such cases, four of them relating to custodial rape. The worst case was one of gang-rape of a 16-year-old girl, leading to her death from injuries. When crimes were committed by the police, the police machinery was often misused to protect the perpetrators and to obstruct investigation.

The police role in the implementation of social legislations was examined by the National Police Commission (NPC) in its report (1979-81). It noted that the police as presently constituted did not possess the required social sensitivity to undertake the delicate task of implementing such legislation. The police are trained only for tasks related to the management of public order and the investigation of crimes under the IPC and other criminal laws. Implementation of legislations like the PCR Act and the SCs and STs (POA) Act, 1989 called for qualities of head and heart, in addition to professionalism. Further, the Indian police were deeply implicated in the caste, class and communal politics of society and it was difficult for them to adopt a professional approach in dealing with the violence, which occurs day in and day out.

Referring to these complaints against the police, the NPC recommended the setting up of special cells to take up cases under the PCR and POA Acts. They also stressed the need for intelligence collection to identify areas requiring special attention. The suggested remedy of setting up special police stations had not worked in practice and there was a need to post additional police officers in existing police stations instead of creating special police stations.

In 2004, the National Commission for the SCs and STs noted that the SCs and STs (POA) Act, 1989 defined ‘atrocity’ as an offence punishable under Section 3 of the Act and listed 22 offences. Section 3 (1) said that whoever, not being a member of the SCs or the STs, commits any of the specified offences against members of the SCs and STs, shall be punished with imprisonment and fine. The basic condition for taking cognisance of the case is that the offender should not be a member of the SCs/STs but the victim should be a member. All the offences enumerated in Section 3 (1) and 3 (2) of the Act are covered under the IPC as well, but they are treated as either non-cognisable or if cognisable, then they are bailable. Some of these offences under the IPC are compoundable as well. However, these offences are made cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable under the SCs & STs (POA) Act, 1989.

The offences under Section 3 (2) of the Act are also covered under the IPC, with cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable status. However, the minimum punishment prescribed for them in the IPC is enhanced in the SC & ST (POA) Act: for example, an offence punishable under the IPC with a 10-year imprisonment or more attracts life imprisonment and fine, if cognisance is taken under the SC & ST (POA) Act along with action under the IPC. However, the basic requirement is that the accused should not be a member of the SCs/STs but the victim must be one. That is to say, criminal intent is not essential but the prior knowledge on the part of the accused that the victim is a member of SCs/STs, is essential. Under Section 3 (2), the essential factor is the intention -- on the part of the accused – to teach the victim a lesson knowing that he/she is a member of the SCs/STs.

These offences are mainly related to patterns of behaviour that shatter the self-respect and self-esteem of the SCs and STs. Broadly, these offences are: destroying self-respect and self-esteem; denial of economic rights; denial of democratic honour; deliberate abuse of the legal and administrative process; assault and/or exploitation of women; damage and/or destruction of property; and heinous offences against person and property already covered in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) carrying a sentence of 10 years or more. Wilful negligence by public servants in performing their duties has also been made a punishable offence. The offences under this Act are to be tried by Special Courts. 

This Act is not only a penal policy measure. It has been made mandatory for state governments to ensure prevention of atrocities and to assist the victims. Legal aid, travelling and maintenance allowance during investigation and trial, have to be provided. Identification of ‘atrocity-prone’ areas and adoption of safety and preventive measures are to form part of the scheme. Periodic surveys providing social audit of the working of the Act are also mandatory. An annual report on the administration of the Act is to be placed every year on the table of each house of Parliament by the central government.

The Act came into force on January 30, 1990. In the exercise of the powers conferred by sub-section (1) of Section 23 of the Act, the central government made the SC&ST (POA) Rules, 1995, which was notified on March 31, 1995. The Rules assign certain duties to be performed by the district magistrate, the district superintendent of police and the state government. The Rules, among others, prescribe the amount of economic assistance and mode of rehabilitative measures to be taken by the state government for providing socio-economic rehabilitation for the victims and/or their family members.

The incidence of atrocities and crimes under the IPC on the SCs and STs during the years 1997 to 2001 are shown below:

 Table I

Year Crime against SCs Crime against STs
1997 27,944 4,644
1998 25,638 4,276
1999 25,093 4,450
2000 23,742 3,959
2001 25,516 4,098
Total: 127,933 21,426
Average: 25,587 4,285

Source: National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Seventh Report, 2001-2002 (2004), p.118 

Table I shows that the total figure of atrocities against the SCs for the entire period was 127,933 cases, with an annual average of 25,587 cases. The total number of atrocities against STs during the same period was 21,426 cases with an annual average of 4,285 cases.  

Table II

Year     Breakup of offences against the SCs
  Murder Grievous Hurt Rape Arson Other Offences Total
1997 513 3860 1037 389 22,145 27,944
1998 516 3809 923 346 20,044 25,638
1999 506 3241 1000 337 20,009 25,093
2000 486 3298 1034 260 18,664 23,742
2001 553 3256 1127 326 20,254 25,516
Total 2574 17,464 5121 1658 101,116 127,933
Average: 515 3493 1024 332 20,223 25,587

Source: National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Seventh Report, 2001-2002 (2004), p.119 

Table II shows an increase in 2001 in the number of murder and rape cases against SCs and STs. This was similar to the finding of the Commissioner for the SCs/STs in his 28th Report submitted in 1988.

Table III

Year  Breakup of offences against the STs
  Murder Grievous Hurt Rape Arson Other Offences Total
1997 95 706 315 29 3499 4644
1998 66 638 331 38 3203 4276
1999 80 646 384 43 3297 4450
2000 53 412 391 30 3072 3958
2001 86 482 398 35 3097 4098
Total: 380 2884 1819 175 16,168 21,426
Average: 76 577 364 35 3234 4285

Source: National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Annual Report (2004), p.119 

Table III shows an increase in the number of cases of murder, grievous hurt, rape and arson during 2001.

The states/UT-wise incidence of crimes, including atrocities against members of SCs during the year 2001 which registered more than 1,000 cases each were UP (8,141), Rajasthan (4,892), Madhya Pradesh (4,653), Andhra Pradesh (1,787), Karnataka (1,310) and Gujarat (1,031).

States/UT-wise incidence of crimes including atrocities on members of STs during the year 2001 were Madhya Pradesh (1,648), Rajasthan (1,023), Chhattisgarh (312), Andhra Pradesh (269), Orissa (235) and Gujarat (216).

A more recent analysis by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) indicates a significant increase in the number of ‘atrocities’ against tribal people in the central tribal belt of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which has witnessed rapid rise of the Maoist movement.  

Central Tribal Belt: Total atrocities against STs (2001-2004)
  2001 2002 2003  2004   
Madhya Pradesh 1535 2504 1779 1667
Chhattisgarh 486 508 774 676
Total 2021 3012 2553 2343

The figures of crimes increased from 2,021 in 2001 to 3,012 in 2002 and to 2,553 in 2003 and 2,343 in 2004. This is the belt which is most affected by the so-called Naxalite violence as reported in the annual report of the Union Home Ministry, 2006.     

A 2004 report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) highlights acts of omission and commission by law enforcement agencies. Despite the availability of voluminous and well researched material, no action against guilty officials is taken nor relief afforded to victims of violence, thus shaking people’s faith in the rule of law. In many cases, the members of the law enforcement agencies themselves are the offenders. Since complaints in atrocity cases are directed against the police and security agencies, effective redress of grievances calls for police reforms besides intervention in specific cases to enforce accountability of the guilty officials.  

The NHRC and other bodies have made recommendations for reforms in the criminal justice system but with no result. No progress has been made in enforcing police accountability for arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings.  The NHRC has stated that in some states extrajudicial killings have virtually become a part of state policy.  

The NHRC report states that ever since the law against atrocities came into existence, Hindu fundamentalists have launched a campaign against it. Nowhere in the country has the law been effectively used. The police machinery resorts to various machinations to discourage registration of cases, dilutes the seriousness of the offences, shields the accused persons, and often inflicts the violence itself.  

Failure to register first information reports in these cases led to the perpetrators being let off with lesser sentences; victims not getting compensation/relief as provided; availability of bail to perpetrators and cases being investigated by lower-ranking officers with less sensitivity. The two common methods used by the police to avoid registration are registration of offence under the more lenient law on protection of civil rights, and not registering cases under the anti-atrocity law on the grounds that the victim has not mentioned abuse by caste name although this is required only in an offence under section 3(1) of the law. 

Further, most police and revenue officials belong to the upper castes; police personnel are not sensitised to offences against dalits and adivasis; many officers at lower levels are not aware of the legal provisions; usually, the police officers are posted to civil rights units as a punishment and they do not take their work seriously; the police do not take seriously their work in implementing social legislation, which they see as less important than their public order duties; they often see the law as an obstacle to caste harmony; they often charge dalits under false cases with a view to monetary gain; the police often succumb to pressures from their own caste peers in society; police corruption prevents proper enforcement. 

The apathy, negligence and passivity of the police extends to other agencies of government and the district civil and judicial administration as well. After examining four types of judicial intervention in Andhra Pradesh, the NHRC concluded that judicial delay and dilution of the scope, applicability and meaning of the atrocities-prevention law resulted in denial of justice to the victims. The National Commission for SCs & STs noted that although protection is the overarching component of the strategy for the development of suppressed communities, that watchdog bodies are not functioning as required. A study of the status of implementation of the law in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh by the Commission found a deplorable state of affairs.   

The report said that the law operates in a given social and political environment, which reflects the relative position of various interests in society. This has a bearing on governance. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the role of political elements, the bureaucracy, civil society institutions such as the media, NGOs and so on, in order to place in perspective the attitudes and considerations which weigh with them.  

The political environment is characterised by indifference to the plight of the dalits; meagre space for social justice issues in the manifestos of political parties; poor debate on such issues in the national and state legislatures. The political insensitivity to atrocities against dalits is reflected in the reluctance to discipline the bureaucracy for its failure to implement the law fairly and objectively. The excesses of the police machinery and others are condoned or ignored to maintain the morale of the forces. The findings of a plethora of reports are not taken seriously by the political elites. Relief and rehabilitation measures are adopted indifferently or not at all.

Selected References

  1. Balagopal, K (1988) Probing in the Political Economy of Agrarian Classes and Conflicts, Perspectives Publishers, Hyderabad
  2. Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai (2006), ‘Maoist Movement in India’ (July 22)
  3. GOI (Government of India), (1979-81) National Police Commission Reports
  4. GOI (Government of India), National Commission for Scheduled Castes  and Scheduled Tribes (NCSCST), (1990), Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, New Delhi
  5. GOI (Government of India) (2002) Planning Commission, National Human Development Report 2000
  6. GOI (2006) Annual Report
  7. Gupta, Anandswarup, (1979) The Police in British India, 1861-1947, Delhi
  8. Gupta, Anandswarup, (1974) Crime and Police In India up to 1861, (Sahitya Bhavan, Agra)
  9. Gupta, Anandswaroop, (1988) ‘Law and Order in a Democratic Society’ in Perspectives in Criminology (Ed.) S Venugopal Rao, IIAS, Shimla
  10. Gupta, Tilak D (1986) ‘Maoism in India: Ideology, Programme and Armed Struggle’, Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai ( July 22)
  11. MHDC (Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre), (1999), South Asia Human Development Report, Islamabad
  12. HRW, (Human Rights Watch), (1999) Broken People: Caste Violence against Untouchables, HRW, New York
  13. Jaffrelot, Christophe, (2002), India’s Silent Revolution, Permanent Black, Delhi
  14. Kannabiran, K G (2004) The Wages of Impunity: Power, Justice and Human Rights, Orient Longman, Hyderabad
  15. Kundu, Amitabh (2006) A Framework for Analyzing Exclusion and Social Backwardness in India: Social Development Report, Council for Social Development, New Delhi
  16. Mohapatra, Subhash (2005) Rays of Hope: A Set of International Standards of Human Rights, Forum for Fact finding, Documentation and Advocacy, Raipur
  17. National Commission on Human Rights (NHRC) 2004 Report on Atrocities against Scheduled Castes by K B Saxena
  18. Roy, Arundhati, (2006) ‘TheCost of Living: Narmada Dam and the Indian State’ in L I Rudolph & J K Jacobson Eds. Experiencing the State, OUP, New Delhi
  19. South Asia Human Development Report, SAHDR (1999), Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre, Islamabad 

(K S Subramanian, formerly of the Indian Police Service (IPS), was Director-General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development, Government of Tripura) 

Infochange News & Features, January 2010