SC/ST Act dilution: Apprehensions about Act’s misuse not completely unfounded

In this debate, the author asks if while defending the rights of the Dalits, should we ignore the rights of innocents who end up being accused? A view countering this opinion has been published 

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Getty Images

NR Mohanty

Dalit outfits across the country observed a violent bandh on April 2 to protest against the Supreme Court of India’s March 20 order, laying down stringent safeguards against the misuse of the SC\ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The SC order is “an attempt to further silence the already oppressed”, they said. Let us recall the Supreme Court’s observation on March 20 while providing for safeguards: “It has been judicially acknowledged that there are instances of abuse of the SC\ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by vested interests against political opponents in panchayat, municipal or other elections, to settle private civil disputes arising out of property, monetary disputes, employment disputes and seniority disputes.”

The Supreme Court might as well have said that the Act could be misused in educational institutions to settle disputes regarding grades. And, what are the safeguards that the Supreme Court has suggested which the dalit groups and their protagonists are opposing? The apex court has made it mandatory for the police to make a preliminary inquiry by a senior officer (of the rank of a DSP) before arresting the accused; the court had also stipulated that the accused would be within his rights to apply for the anticipatory bail when such a case is registered. Are these safeguards so sweeping and unreasonable that core provisions of the SC\ST Act would be negated?

On the face of it, the demand of the Dalit outfits is concerned with the rights of the weaker sections of the society and anyone believing in the democratic ideals should support it. But the question is: while zealously defending the rights of the dalits, should we be completely oblivious of the basic democratic rights of the innocents who sometimes end up as accused? In today’s India, it may not be politically correct to say that there can be motivated campaigns against innocent individuals by a Dalit or a woman or any other traditionally exploited society. But that is a fact. And it behoves us as a democratic nation that we do not allow the victims of motivated campaign to suffer the indignities for no fault of their own. Let me cite an example from JNU to corroborate my point. Immediately after I was elected as the president of JNU Students’ Union (1982-83), I received a complaint from a handful of students of the school of computer sciences saying that a professor - in fact, he was head of the school then - had discriminated against a student belonging to the SC community, that the professor had used derogatory language against him. The demand was for his immediate suspension and eventual dismissal.

I spoke to the professor who insisted that the student did badly in all his examinations but he kept insisting that he must be given good grades as he was a dalit student from a deprived background. The professor had apparently told the student that he and other faculty members were prepared to give more personal time for his academic improvement but they could not inflate his marks to compensate for his background. The student then, with some political\organisational support in the campus, had given it the colour of caste discrimination, the professor said. I spoke to other teachers who corroborated the professor’s argument. It was the students’ version versus the teachers’ version. Though, as the JNUSU president, I represented the interests of the students, I felt that the democratic tenets that we professed in JNU ordained that the demand for the suspension of the professor could only be made if he is found guilty after an impartial enquiry. On my insistence, the vice chancellor set up a committee comprising five internationally-acclaimed academics of JNU – Professor S Gopal, Professor Bipan Chandra, Professor Tapas Mazumdar, Professor Romila Thapar and Professor Amit Bhaduri. I was co-opted as the student representative. In the first meeting by the enquiry committee, the professor gave his version, but the student concerned refused to appear. The committee convened the meeting three more times, but the complainant stubbornly refused to appear before it branding it as a covert exercise to protect the anti-Dalit forces! Could anyone doubt the integrity of the five eminent professors who constituted the enquiry committee? But some student organisations dismissed the exercise as a whitewash and encouraged the student to file a complaint with the police and the case inevitably went to the court. The professor had to go through a long period of harassment personally and professionally; his participation in conferences abroad, which was a frequent occurrence, came to a stop as he was asked by the court to surrender his passport till the disposal of the case. The professor made more than two dozen trips to the lower court in the next six years, but the complainant stayed away completely from all court proceedings. Finally, the court issued an ex-parte order exonerating the accused professor. Imagine the trauma of an academic for six years due to the motivated accusation of a student! This is just one example that highlights as to why the due process emphasised by the Supreme Court is so important. Ram Vilas Paswan, a Dalit leader and Union minister, says: “Any law can be misused. Why riders only to the SC\ST Act”?

Other MPs have raised similar questions: “People are falsely implicated in murder and dacoity cases too. Why is the demand to save people from being falsely implicated only in cases of Atrocities Act?” These are right questions but the Supreme Court has addressed them over the years by issuing several guidelines to ensure that the victims of motivated complaints are protected from prolonged harassment. The March 20 decision is in line with similar orders in the past. It got more attention and even moved the government to counter it as the Dalit vote bank is up in arms. The Supreme Court must be firm to ensure that innocents must be protected from all motivated charges, whatever the identity of the complainant may be – a Dalit or a woman or any other vulnerable or powerful sections of the society.

The counterpoint to this article is published here

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