At least nine persons were killed and scores injured Monday as Dalit anger exploded on the streets in different parts of the country on the day the Centre filed a petition in the Supreme Court, asking it to review its March 20 order that called for changes in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Protesting this alleged dilution of the law, Dalits tried to enforce a Bharat Bandh and its impact was felt most in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Punjab. They repeatedly clashed with police and blocked rail and road traffic at several places. In the violence that followed, vehicles and public properties, including police posts, were torched.
Places in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana witnessed buses being set on fire, trains stopped, curfews imposed and internet services restricted, even as police cane-charged protesters. The Centre has already filed a review petition against the changes made to the Act by the SC to "prevent its misuse", and Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Monday said the government will argue the matter with “full authority”.
But the protests we are witnessing across most of the country are not just over the Act. They are born of an anger that has been gathering momentum over the years — sparked by various incidents and allowed to fester, even aggravated, by an insensitive government.
According to the latest available National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, crimes against SCs went up by 5.5 percent in 2016 (40,801) over 2015 (38,670). Crimes against Scheduled Tribes saw a spike of 4.7 percent, (6,568 in 2016 over 6,276 in 2015). According to a study of the same data, in India, a crime is committed against Dalits every 15 minutes, and six Dalit women are raped every day.
Of these thousands of incidents, some emerged as flashpoints over the past two-three years, witnessing a coming together of Dalits and the emergence of a younger, vocal leadership.
Dalit groups across the country have taken to the streets, declaring a “Bharat Bandh” in response to the alleged “dilution” of the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, after the Supreme Court on March 20, 2018, banned automatic arrests and registration of criminal cases under the legislation which seeks to protect members of scheduled castes and tribes against discrimination and abuse.
On the one hand, Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, under pressure from both the Opposition and within the NDA announced that the government does not agree with the Supreme Court's decision and has filed a strong, comprehensive review petition. (Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi had said, “It is in the DNA of the RSS/BJP to keep Dalits at the lowest level in Indian society. Anyone who challenges this thought is crushed with violence. Our Dalit brothers and sisters are today on the streets demanding protection of their rights from the Modi Government. We salute them.”)
On the other hand, the agitations on the street have taken a turn for the violent.
As per reports, the protests have left four dead in Madhya Pradesh's Morena, adding that curfew had been imposed in the area. In Madhya Pradesh, curfew was also imposed in parts of Gwalior and Section 144 (prohibiting assembly of more than four people in the area) in Sagar. Madhya Pradesh's Bhind also witnessed stone pelting and vandalism. Shots were also fired during protests in Gwalior.
In Punjab, the Amarinder Singh government has stepped up security measures, including deferring the CBSE Class 10 and Class 12 examinations. "Taking cognizance of the letter of the director general (school education), the CBSE decided to postpone all class 12 and 10 examinations scheduled for April 2, 2018, in the state of Punjab," it said in a statement issued late in last night. The Punjab government also ordered the suspension of bus services and mobile internet services.
Delhi and Uttar Pradesh
As per a PTI report, Dalit protesters squatted on tracks in several places outside Delhi, stopping trains, including the Dehradun Express and the Ranchi Rajdhani, as part of their agitation. Many trains, such as Saptakranti Express, Utkal Express and the Bhubaneswar and Ranchi Rajdhani as well as the Kanpur Shatabdi, were stopped ahead of Ghaziabad in Meerut and Modinagar.
Clashes also broke out between the protesters and the police in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. Mobs also disrupted trains at the Hapur station, where the movement of many goods trains was affected.
And not just MP, things are far from calm across the country. In Jaipur, Rajasthan, a showroom was vandalized. In addition, clashes between the protestors and the police broke out in Ranchi, Jharkhand. Protestors in Odisha's Sambalpur blocked the movement of trains. As violence remains unchecked, reports suggest that at least three people, including two policemen, were injured during a “lathi charge” in Ajmer, Rajasthan after the protestors attacked first with stones.
Reports also suggest that a youth died in police firing in Alwar and internet services have been suspended in the area.
While there has been criticism for the arson, the vandalism, and the violence, the “Bharat Bandh” in general has received the support of many. After all, atrocities against Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis in the country have certainly seen a spike — it is hard to deny this sad reality considering the year began with mass violence against Dalits in Bhima-Koregaon.
The merits, demerits and the inconveniences of a countrywide “bandh” can debate all day long. What is, however, more important, is to understand the potential harm caused by the Supreme Court in its attempt to “prevent misuse of law”.
The SC/ST Act remains in place because of millennia of systemic oppression that continues to make its presence felt even in this supposed “post-caste” India of 2018.