voice of anguish: Dalits protest in Delhi against the rise in incidence of rape of Dalit women
● June 2014: A 19-year-old Dalit girl was allegedly raped and murdered in Badhauna village in Uttar Pradesh.
● May 2014: Two teenage Dalit girls were allegedly gang raped by men and then hanged from a tree in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district.
● January 2014: A 13-year-old Dalit girl was allegedly molested by a 55-year-old Gujjar in Dumada village of Ajmer. When a police complaint was filed, the family of the teenager was forced to flee the village under constant pressure from Gujjars.
These are just some of the instances which show that atrocities against Dalit women are on the rise. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, there were 1,346 cases of rape of Dalit women in 2009; the number rose to 1,557 in 2011 and 1,576 in 2012.
“Members of dominant castes are known to use sexual violence against Dalit women as a political tool for punishment, humiliation and assertion of power,” says Divya Iyer, senior researcher, social rights watch group, Amnesty International India.
But it is not just sexual assault. There are cases of other forms of torture of Dalits too. For example, in May this year, over 50 Dalits in Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu complained that they were harassed by the police over their participation in an annual festival of a church in Periyavarseeli village. Similarly, in September last year, a Dalit government employee in Ahmedabad committed suicide in his office toilet after he was allegedly humiliated by his senior and harassed by his colleagues for many months.
A look at some figures tells the story. There were 32,712 registered cases of atrocities against Dalits in 2010 which rose to 33,719 in 2011 according to the NCRB. It is estimated that a crime is committed against a Dalit person every 18 minutes. Dalit Media Watch, a group that reports on crimes against India’s lowest caste, has reported that two Dalits are assaulted, murdered and have their homes torched every hour.
Though the rights of Dalits are protected under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, experts point out that there are too many drawbacks in the law to make it into a forceful deterrent to those who victimise them.
They say that victims confront hurdles at every stage of the legal process — from the registration of a case to its investigation to filing a chargesheet and right up to the trial.
“Certain forms of atrocities, though well-documented, are not covered by the act. Plus, there are procedural hurdles such as non-registration of cases. There are delays in trial and the conviction rate is low too. There are also delays in providing relief and rehabilitation to victims,” says Mehul Dabhi of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, a forum committed to the elimination of discrimination based on caste.
Experts also say that the implementation of the law has always been a problem. “Under the act, special courts are supposed to tackle Dalit cases. But this is not happening as these courts take up other cases too,” says Rahul Singh, a Delhi-based Dalit rights lawyer.
The law also stipulates that the investigation of a case be done by a police officer not below the rank of deputy superintendent of police. However, this too is rarely followed. “Often, the accused go scot free because no investigation was done by an officer of this rank. Mostly, investigations are carried out by lower rank officers, which are not accepted by the court,” Singh adds.
Taking note of these flaws, several amendments to the law have been proposed by Dalit rights groups. An ordinance was also brought into effect by the previous UPA government in March this year to amend the law.
The ordinance has added a list of new offences to the act, including such atrocities as the tonsuring of head, moustache, or similar acts which are derogatory to the dignity of Dalits and Adivasis; garlanding with chappals; denying access to irrigation facilities or forest rights; forcing them to dispose or carry human or animal carcasses, or to dig graves; imposing social or economic boycott; preventing Dalit and Adivasi candidates filing nomination to contest elections; hurting the modesty of Dalit or Adivasi woman by removing her garments, and forcing a Dalit to leave his or her house or village.
“At present, only those offences listed in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that attract punishment of 10 years or more and are committed on Dalits or Adivasis are accepted as offences falling under the Atrocities Act. A number of commonly committed offences (hurt, grievous hurt, intimidation, kidnapping, etc.) are excluded from the law. Therefore, a schedule of a list of IPC offences has been provided in the amended act,” Dabhi states.
The ordinance also specifies that the special courts established exclusively for the trial of Dalit cases should have the power to directly take cognizance of offences under this act and the trial shall, as far as possible, be completed within a period of two months from the date of filing of the chargesheet.
There is also an addition of a chapter on the “Rights of Victims and Witnesses”. Though the law does recognise a few rights, “many other essential rights have been included so as to ensure that the state makes arrangements for the protection of victims, their dependents and witnesses against any kind of intimidation, coercion or inducement or violence or threats of violence,” Singh says.
But Dalit rights activists such as Chaman Lal feel that the law should also include a proper sensitisation programme. “There should be a sensitisation programme on Dalit rights at schools which could be carried out in tandem with the ministry of human resources development. It is important to change the mindset,” says Lal, professor, Centre for Comparative Literature, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda.
For the moment, Dalits are looking to the implementation of the ordinance, which has been tabled in the current session of Parliament. If passed, the Dalits would have a reason to rejoice.