Flogging of Dalit man in Rajkot raises questions on Supreme Court diluting the SC/ST Atrocities Act
Tied to a pole, Dalit victim Mukesh Vania screamed in pain — but failed to appeal to his assailants. The rag-picker later died in hospital.
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A 35-year-old Dalit man, a rag-picker, identified as Mukesh Vania, was killed in cold blood in Gujarat's Rajkot. This video-graphed murder shows Vania, tied-up to a pole with ropes around his waist, being flogged with iron rods by two men. A third person soon enters the frame — his arrival raises hopes that Vania will be saved. But, in fact, the third man takes over the rod from the one before him and joins in a relay of sorts to "punish" the man for being what he is — a Dalit.
Vania cries out, then screams — but fails to appeal to the conscience of his assailants. He succumbs to his injuries in hospital later.
'Mr. Mukesh Vaniya belonging to a scheduled caste was miserably thrashed and murdered by factory owners in Rajkot and his wife was brutally beaten up'.#GujaratIsNotSafe4Dalit pic.twitter.com/ffJfn7rNSc— Jignesh Mevani (@jigneshmevani80) May 20, 2018
That's all the horror the video could record.
The beating of Vania's wife has not been captured on camera, but reports have confirmed that she too was mercilessly thrashed. She has fortunately survived.
The murder happened on Sunday morning (May 20) when Mukesh and his wife, both rag-pickers in Rajkot, were using magnets to look for scrap. Some factory workers then confronted them, accusing them of theft. What followed is a story of pure dread, which has come to be India's new 'normal'.
In 2016, another video showed four people — all Dalits — being flogged for skinning a dead cow in a village near Una in Gujarat. While the four men begged to be spared, a crowd stood and watched, while some made videos of the naked barbarity at display.
The Una caste atrocity — yes, the video went viral. But what did it really change?
These two incidents have come from Gujarat — but reports of horrifying crimes against Dalits have trickled in from all across the country, making it brutally clear that, in this day and age, India continues to discriminate on the basis of caste.
Against this background, it is important to travel back about two months back in time. On March 20, the Supreme Court of this country diluted the provision of mandatory arrest under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The Act under question is an evolved version of previous Acts such as the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955, which was later revamped as the bProtection of Civil Rights Act in 1976, and subsequently recognised as the Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and Rules, 1995.
While hearing a petition to review its March 20 order, the court observed, "We are not living in a civilised society if a sword is hanging on a citizen's head that can be put behind bars on a one-sided complaint. The arrest of people without proper procedure is barred by the Constitution and Parliament."
Because the temple of justice should be equally open to all
But, the question arises, are we really living in a civilised society if a citizen (Dalits are as much citizens of this country as anyone else) can be killed for the skinning of dead cows or for collecting scrap?
There is documented evidence to the Una flogging and the Rajkot killing in the form of videos that have gone viral - what about the atrocities where the law enforcement agencies have to take cognisance of a case based only on the victim's statement?
Going by the March 20 order, which was challenged by the Centre after violent protests rocked the country, the provision of "automatic arrest" — or arrest based on a victim's complaint — has been scrapped while making it mandatory for police officers to acquire a written permission from a competent authority before an arrest is made.
The Bharat Bandh that followed in protest against the SC order on the SC/ST Act (March 20)
The court ruled that a public servant can only be arrested after the approval of the appointing authority. In case of others, the approval of a senior superintendent of police is necessary.
The court had also used the March 20 order to emphasise how it felt the Act may even "perpetuate casteism" and how there was a need to curb "false implication of innocent citizens on caste lines".
But Mukesh Vania's killing is a reinforcement of the fact that casteism is India's reality and its victims need greater protection, not less.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data of crimes against SC/ST (PoA) Act, as revealed in its 2017 annual report, shows that while in 2014, the number of cases were 40,401, they dropped marginally by 4.3 per cent to 38,670 in 2015, but had risen by 5.5 per cent to reach 40,801 in 2016.
It is important to bear in mind that these are only the reported cases. Many Dalits are unable to even report their sufferings because of the fear of more powerful perpetrators and also, in several instances, the complicity of the police.
In a country where murders in the name of caste enjoy deeply tacit social sanction, it is important that the apex court revises its order and helps strengthen the law, so that no other Mukesh Vania dies while sifting through scrap for his abysmal livelihood. And so that no injured woman has to run to call for help to save her husband - only to come back and find him dead.