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Sonia panel for Dalit act review

New Delhi, Feb. 20: The Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council (NAC) has sought a review of the Dalit act and suggested strengthening existing provisions and including new offences.

A set of draft recommendations, put up by the panel on its website for comments, explains why changes are needed in the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, popularly known as the Dalit act.

“Over 20 years after it was enacted, its implementation shows up severe lacunae that must be addressed.”

The proposals have been framed by a sub-group of the NAC on Dalit issues comprising Farah Naqvi and Mihir Shah. The duo have said many atrocities still “common, widespread and systemic” are not covered by the present law.

The sub-group has proposed a list of offences for incorporation. These include forcing an SC/ST person to carry or dispose human and animal carcasses, dig graves or perform manual scavenging.

Offering an SC/ST woman as a devadasi, influencing voting and thwarting elected Dalit panchayat members from carrying out their duties should also be brought under the law, the NAC has suggested.

The sub-group has also mentioned other new offences. These include obstructing a Dalit or a tribal from using common resources like wells, roads or springs preventing them from sporting new clothes, witchcraft and other forms of social and economic boycott.

Forcible tonsuring, removing moustaches and garlanding with footwear should also be treated as cognisable crimes, the draft has suggested. Such practices are still used to “teach” “empowered” Dalits and tribals a “lesson” and “show them their place” in the caste hierarchy.

The draft also calls for “defining some offences with strict liability”. At present, the law requires an element of mens rea, that is a guilty mind or an intent to act, to establish criminal liability. The draft says that inability to prove such intent often becomes a ground not to register cases or acquit the offender.

In other words, the suggestion implies that a complainant’s plea should be mostly taken at face value. The assumption is that given the ground realities, especially in villages and small towns, a Dalit or a tribal requires extraordinarily courage to walk up to a police station and file a complaint against a person of higher caste.

The NAC members have pointed out another serious shortcoming — the act’s emphasis on establishing that an offence was committed for the reason that the victim was a Dalit or a tribal. The draft says there are cases where police did not record an FIR unless the complainant was able to establish that his caste identity was the reason for the offence.

In some cases, cops dismissed a complaint simply because the offender did not use caste slurs. “Even if a case is registered, (and the offender) chargesheeted and prosecuted, failure to prove that an SC or ST identity formed the basis for the offence often provides the basis for subsequent acquittal by the judiciary,” the draft notes.