Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Judiciary and India's Dalits

If India is destined for global influence, it will need to address the core issue of social justice. 160 million of its citizens belong to the scheduled castes, now known as the Dalits. These are India's ex-untouchables. The incidence of illiteracy, bonded labor, child labor, landlessness and income poverty is far higher in the Dalit community when compared to the rest of the Indian population. The Dalits continue to suffer social indignities on account of their birth.

The panel of eminent jurists that drafted India's constitution in 1950 outlawed untouchability. The Indian legislature passed the Civil Rights Act in 1955. It introduced the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act in 1976. Parliament enacted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 1989. I am not sure whether any of these laws have had their intended effect.

Let us take the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 as an example. Ancillary legislation was introduced in 1995 to strengthen its provisions. The Act was intended to address issues of caste-based violence, forced labor, denial of access to public amenities, and sexual abuse. It lays down stiff penalties. Most offences are non-bailable and carry a minimum punishment of five years imprisonment. The Act mandates every state to convert an existing Sessions Court in each district into a Special Court to expeditiously try cases registered under the Act. However, only two states had established the Special Courts in 2001. Other states chose to designate existing Sessions Courts as Special Courts, over and above their current caseload. These dual tasked Sessions Courts were already overburdened and issues of caste-based discrimination were relegated.

There were 147,000 cases under the Prevention of Atrocities Act pending in the Indian courts in 1998. Only 31,011 cases were brought to trial. And only 5.4% or 1,677 cases ended in a conviction. All others charged were acquitted. Conversely the conviction rates in cases tried under the Indian penal code was 39.4% in 1999 and 41.8% in 2000. This discrepancy is a travesty of justice.

India's politicians introduce legislation to garner votes but fail to follow up when it comes to implementation. One study indicated that a quarter of the government officials tasked with enforcing the act were unaware of its existence. Local level policemen are reluctant to file action against fellow caste members. The time it takes between a case being registered and the actual trial itself provides a window to intimidate poor witnesses.

While the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes can receive and investigate complaints under its jurisdiction as a civil court, it can not enforce its decisions because it not a criminal court. Legal activists will now need to leverage the Prevention of Atrocities Act to address issues of caste-based violence in a more potent manner. Good governance, after all, is a prerequisite for sustained economic growth.

1 comment:

sanjay said...

When it comes to India, there is usually a large gap between paper & reality. Inevitably, this becomes a chasm where reporting about caste is concerned. It is much more likely that the "147,000 cases filed under the Prevention of Atrocities Act" simply did not belong under this act in the first place i.e. there was no caste factor but a straightforward land dispute. It would not surprise me if a large majority of these cases were filed by overzealous foreign funded & inspired NGOs.

I'm not sure I buy the conclusion that there is a "travesty of justice" w.r.t to dalits in India.


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