Friday, September 30, 2022
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Why do prejudices exist against SC/ST despite stringent laws?

K. B Jandial

Right from childhood to the present-day political rallies & debates, one thing is repeatedly said- “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. Even the Constitution of India guarantees fundamental right of equality, right to life and freedoms without distinction of race, colour, sex, language, religion, social origin or birth. By law, no one can be subjected to discrimination, inhuman or degrading treatment. But most of the time, this general statement looks more of political rhetoric than reality.

Even after 72 years of the Republic, the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribe population continue to be the victims of caste prejudices and atrocities despite constitutional guarantees and stringent laws. Most of them, especially in the rural India suffer on account of their economic dependence on non-SC/ST landowners, educational backwardness and social discrimination. The Scheduled Castes have suffered from the stigma of age-old caste prejudices and inhuman practice of untouchability which seemingly appeared to be declining in the urban society but continue to be a challenge for the society.

One of the objectives of the Preamble of Constitution is “fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual …” The framers of the Constitution were cognizant of the harsh realities of the Indian society that was beset with caste prejudices and discrimination to which the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes were subjected to. The dawn of Independence, brought in the lofty ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity which were utopian principles but were guaranteed by law. Regrettably, these were not seen in equal measure on the ground even after 75 years.

The centuries old caste prejudices and racial discrimination in Indian society compelled the founding fathers of the Constitution to abolish the menace of untouchability (Article17) and later brought in the Untouchability (Offences) Act in 1955. The lacunae and loopholes in the Act impelled the Govt to undertake a major overhaul and in 1976, the Act was refurbished as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 (PRC Act).

The Act made the ‘process of untouchability’ a cognisable offence. Its focus is to “liberate the society from blind and ritualistic adherence & traditional beliefs which lost all the legal or moral base” and established new ideals for the society- equality to the Dalits, bringing them at par with general public and absence of any disability, restriction or prohibition on the grounds of caste or religion. The PCR Act seeks to punish those who preach and practice untouchability and accords to the Dalits and STs right to equality, social integration a fruition and fraternity a reality.

Finding the goals set before the nation by the Constitution on these critical issues not fully achieved, the Govt came up with yet another landmark legislation in 1989, The Scheduled Castes and The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (PoA Act), which is based on social realities and constitutional mandate. This Act was extended to J&K only after abrogation of Article 370. It seeks to remove all roadblocks in the path of equality, dignity and progress of SCs & STs. Section 3 of the Act identifies 29 punishable acts against SCs & STs as atrocities. The PoA Act also seeks to prevent “commission of offences of atrocities against them and to provide for Special Courts and exclusive Special Courts for trial of such offences and for the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of such offences.” The Act is so stringent that it provides for punishment to even public servants for neglect of their duties under the Act. The Act was made more stringent by amended in 2015.

The PoA Act was further amended in 2018, this time to negate the Supreme Court’s judgment in Subhash Kashinath Mahajan vs The State of Maharashtra where it restrained arrest of the accused without the preliminary inquiry by a Dy SP in to the charges, and the accused can be released on anticipatory bail. The Apex Court said the Govt servants should not be arrested without prior sanction and private citizens too should be arrested only after a preliminary inquiry under the law. The 2018 Amendment negated the judgment and provided that no preliminary inquiry is required before registering FIR and Investigating Officer shall not require approval for arrest of any accused. Upholding the constitutional validity of the SC/ST Amendment Act, the Supreme Court in February 2020 held that a court can grant anticipatory bail only in cases where a prima facie case is not made out.

Despite various measures initiated by the Govt since 1976 to remove the gap between lower and upper castes and to protect SCs and STs from humiliation, disrespect, offences, indignities and harassment, they still remained a vulnerable, and atrocities and discrimination against them could not be totally rooted out. The former Union Secretary to Welfare and the champion of the oppressed and exploited sections of society, late Shri P.S Krishna, IAS (1956) was the brain behind the landmark social justice legislation. He had said that since there existed a juxtaposition of the powerful and the powerless in the Indian strong caste system in most of the villages, it was very difficult to secure proper investigation and quick and successful trials

Even though the Indian Constitution envisaged abolition of ‘untouchability’ and end of social discrimination, prejudices are still rampant in the society, may be in much lesser measure. For years, ‘mainstream’ discourse in the society has focused on limiting the constitutional provisions enacted in favour of Dalits and Adivasis. In particular, two key concerns of these groups — protection from atrocities, and adequate representation — have been the target of several prejudices.

The Supreme Court has observed in a case last year that many perpetrators of caste-based atrocities get away scot-free due to shoddy investigations and the negligence of prosecution. Atrocities against them continue to be a reality in our society even today. The need of the hour is the strict enforcement of the statutory provisions that protect the constitutional rights of the SCs & STs.

It is a matter of concern that despite these landmark legislations, crimes against SCs & STs have shown an increase of 9.4% (for SC) and 9.3% (for ST) in 2020 in India as compared to 2019, as per report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). A total of 50,291 cases were registered for crimes against SCs in 2020 against 45,961 in 2019.

While blissfully only 10 cases of atrocities were recorded in J&K in 2020 and 20 cases 2021, it does not mean that these communities are not suffering discrimination and atrocities on the ground. Incidentally, J&K is perhaps the only State where the Dogra Ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh had ordered eradication of untouchability and opened the doors of all temples to Dalits. It was in sync with progressive outlook of Dogras even before Independence.

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has launched a 24x7 National Helpline Against Atrocities (NHAA) in Dec 2021 on toll-free number 14566 across India in Hindi, English and regional languages. It is part of steps taken to ensure strict implementation of the PoA Act, 1989 by ensuring timely help to prevent atrocities on SCs and STs. It can be accessed by making a voice call /VOIP either from a mobile or landline number of any Telecom Operatory. Every such complaint is registered as an FIR, relief is provided, all registered complaints are investigated and all chargesheets filed are prosecuted in the Courts for decision - all within the given timelines in the Act.

A meaningful beginning has been made by the Social Welfare Department this year in collaboration with J&K Regional Branch of Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) to sensitize the stakeholders to the provisions of these two landmark legislations, build informed awareness about the laws and discharge their assigned duties under the Acts. So far, three workshops have been organised, one to sensitize the civil servants and the other for training and induction of empaneled “Legal Advisers” & “Field Level Counselors” who have an important role in helping the victims including for facilitating compensation ranging from Rs 8000 to Rs 8 lakhs. The third workshop was on reorientation of Dy SPs & SDPOs who are the designated Investigating Officer for offences under the Act.

Legal luminaries, resource persons from academia, serving and former bureaucrats participated and took pains in making them realise their respective role in implementing the Acts and rid the society of these social evils. Those who participated include Advocate General D C Raina, Advocate Aseem Sawhney, Prof Nupur Tiwari of IIPA New Delhi, Prof Vijay Nagpal of Chandigarh, Ms. Sheetal Nanda & Shahid Iqbal, the Patron of IIPA, Dr Ashok Bhan & Chairman of IIPA B R Sharma.

At the workshop, Ms. Sheetal Nanda recalled her visit to a Govt School when she found to her dismay, that one student in a class was sitting on the floor while all others were on desks. It speaks volume about our mindset. Such treatment to SCs is still being meted out to them, modern and progressive look and these laws notwithstanding. The society has to fight out and help change the mindset. While the strict enforcement of the provisions of these Act is the fundamental necessity, mass awareness and public campaign to rid the society of such irrational, inhumane and undignified social thinking and actions. As J&K doesn’t have many cases of atrocities, the challenge is not unsurmountable.

(The author is a former IAS officer and Life Member of IIPA) (feedback:[email protected]).

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