Several states across the country continued to burn on April 3, as protests against the “dilution” of the SC/ST atrocities Act by the Supreme Court raged on. Eleven people have died so far in the violence, houses of two Dalit leaders set fire to in Rajasthan, public property vandalised in many states, and the running of trains and buses affected, even as the administration seemed powerless.
The violence is terrible and unjustifiable. No protest, however legitimate, should be allowed to turn into a near riot. However, what the violence has also done is turn focus away from the causes of the protest, with the discourse now dominated by the vandalism and blame game over who was responsible for it.
Leaders busy in mudslinging
Tuesday was also the day when the Supreme Court refused to stay its order amending the Atrocities Act till further hearing, in the process raising important questions about the presumption of guilt, about whether “fair treatment” could mean different things for different communities, and about the government’s role in the passing of the previous order.
However, social media, and even a few news outlets, were abuzz with conspiracy theories about the violence, with some using it to discredit and delegitimise the protesters. While one Raja Chauhan – reportedly a BJP worker – was booked for firing during protests in Madhya Pradesh, some people shared pictures of a youth who had allegedly also been part of protests by the Rajput Karni Sena.
Others, including politicians, blamed both the Congress and the BJP for inciting and allowing the violence, picking out facts – like the worst-affected states, such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, were ruled by the BJP – and using it to come up with theories.
The senior political leadership in the country did no better. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was deafeningly silent on the issue (while tweeting cheerily about Padma awards), and Rahul Gandhi and Amit Shah removed the centrality of Dalits from the narrative, making it a mud-slinging competition between their parties.
दलितों को भारतीय समाज के सबसे निचले पायदान पर रखना RSS/BJP के DNA में है। जो इस सोच को चुनौती देता है उसे वे हिंसा से दबाते हैं।हजारों दलित भाई-बहन आज सड़कों पर उतरकर मोदी सरकार से अपने अधिकारों की रक्षा की माँग कर रहे हैं। हम उनको सलाम करते हैं।#BharatBandh— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) April 2, 2018
Congress, which is mocking the DNA of PM @narendramodi is the same party which:Defeated Dr. Ambedkar not once but twice.Made flimsy excuses to ensure his portrait was not placed in Central Hall.Denied him a Bharat Ratna. India has seen through their negative politics!— Amit Shah (@AmitShah) April 3, 2018
Gandhi found faults with the BJP’s DNA, and Shah criticised the Congress for having been mean to Dr Ambedkar. Neither explained how that would help the Dalits protesting on the ground at present. BJP minister Vijay Goyal, meanwhile, conducted this Twitter poll:
Do you think #BharatBandh was a conspiracy by few parties to defame the government at the Centre by instigating sections of the society?— Vijay Goel (@VijayGoelBJP) April 3, 2018
Questions SC raises
The government had tried to redress the protesters’ main grievance, and sought a review of the SC order on April 2. However, the order had been passed on March 20. Why did the government wait till the protests began?
On April 3, the court maintained that its directives were aimed only at protecting the innocent. These directives include the need for written permission from appointing authorities in case of action against public servants, arrest of private citizens only after the Senior Superintendent of Police’s nod, and no blanket ban on bail to an accused.
“We are only concerned about innocent people being put behind bars. We are not against the Act at all. But innocents can't be punished on unilateral version. Why does government want people to be arrested without verification?,” the court said. It also asserted that “procedure established by law should be fair, just and reasonable”.
In theory, the court is not wrong. Laws assuming the guilt of the accused can be easily misused. However, “fair, just and reasonable” procedures need to factor in the reality that objectivity can sometimes hamper equality, such as when a complainant is disadvantaged against an accused through millennia of traditions and prejudices, and when the law enforcement system is very likely to be sympathetic to, or overpowered by, the accused.
In such a scenario, the law needs to guard against misuse without disempowering those it seeks to protect. This is a tough balance, and needs public discussion and debate, which our political leaders should have initiated, instead of trying to decide who threw the first stone.
The court made another point: “People who are agitating have not read the order. There is a lot of hearsay.” The job to clarify “hearsay” and clear confusions was the government’s, in which it failed singularly.
In Parliament on Tuesday, home minister Rajnath Singh stated that “the Government of India was not party in that case”. However, the court has said that it passed its March 20 order based on the data the government provided, and the Centre needs to clear up exactly what that data was.
Because, according to the government’s NCRB, crimes against Dalits rose in 2016 from 2015. Cases pending trial rose from 78 per cent to 91 per cent in the case of Dalits, and from 83 per cent to 90 per cent for Adivasis in the past seven years (from 2010 to 2016). Conviction rates dropped from 38 per cent in 2010 to 16 per cent in 2016 for crimes against SCs, and from 26 per cent in 2010 to 8 per cent in 2016 or crimes against STs.
Does this suggest rampant “misuse” of the Act, as the SC fears, or poor investigation and victim-witness intimidation? These are the questions that the government should be answering, and the Opposition asking.
Instead, what we are seeing is a low form of political opportunitism, with attempts to seek brownie points from deaths.