Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was caught lying this week. The lie ironically was nailed just a day before the Information & Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani’s ill-advised attempt at penalising journalists on a mere complaint of having carried ‘fake news’. Even more ironically, the Law Minister’s lie was dutifully reported by the mainstream media even after the lie was nailed.
On Monday this week, the day Dalits across north India hit the streets to protest the government’s failure to put up a strong enough defence in the Supreme Court of the SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, Prasad declared that the government was not even a party to the case before the Supreme Court.
It was quickly pointed out to him that not only was the Union government very much a party to the case but the Government of India was represented by an Additional Solicitor General, a law officer reporting to the Law ministry. Court records clearly revealed that the ASG Maninder Singh was heard by the court before the ruling was given. What is even more damning, it is also known now that the ASG had actually pleaded to the court on behalf of the government to lift the prohibition on anticipatory bail in cases related to the Act. It is possible that the minister was being economical with the truth in the fond hope that it would help assuage the simmering anger among the Dalits, who felt betrayed by both the government and the judiciary. It is also possible that the Law Minister was himself not fully acquainted with the facts of the case. In either case, his conduct did little to restore confidence in the government. If anything, the minister’s bland lie, an act designed to distance the government from the Supreme Court’s ruling, intensified the sense of betrayal felt by the community.
The Prime Minister and the government’s silence on the issue over the next ten days would have done little to inspire confidence that their sympathy lay with the oppressed. PM Narendra Modi had aid that all action must necessarily have a reaction. It is not clear if this week’s Bharat Bandh called by Dalit organisations reminded him of the infamous statement attributed to him. But the spontaneous and widespread protests by Dalit groups this week would surely have shaken the government and forced them to reflect on what could have caused the unrest. Unfortunately, the government has shown little inclination to understand the simmering anger among Dalits. The enthusiasm with which BJP-ruled states went about restricting cattle trade, shutting down slaughter houses, banning beef but allowing the export of buff meat hurt the Dalits and the minority community. Intemperate statements by BJP and RSS leaders who have been publicly boasting that they would like the Constitution re-written would have added to their insecurity. There is official data that indicate a sharp rise in the incidence of violence and atrocities directed against both Dalits and minorities. To top it all, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has been speaking of the need to revisit provisions related to reservation. So, it is easy to understand why the cynical reading by the Supreme Court and the government that the law was being misused by Dalits to harass citizens added fuel to the fire. The National Crime Record Bureau data which the Supreme Court relied upon, revealed that approximately 5,000 cases out of the 40,000 filed under the Act were dismissed in 2016 as false accusations. Assuming the figure to be correct, it still constituted around 13 per cent of the total. With 87% of the complaints genuine, there was no reason for the Supreme Court to intervene and for the government to agree to it. But with a Law Minister who doesn’t mind lying and a PM who spends more time in delivering political speeches than on governance, it is clearly a tragedy that is being scripted.