Placating Dalit anger
The Union Cabinet on Wednesday cleared the amendments to the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act which was diluted by a Supreme Court order on March 20. The Apex court in its ruling had struck down certain provisions in the Act saying that experience shows that these provisions can be misused. It forbade the automatic registration of FIR once a complaint was lodged under the Act. It said a preliminary investigation by the police is necessary before the registration of the FIR or the arrest of the accused. It also ruled against the denial of anticipatory bail in cases registered against the Act. The Dalit groups interpreted the Supreme Court ruling as the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and demanded that the government should bring a legislation overruling the court order. In response, the government filed a review petition against the order but the Apex court stood by its judgement. Ever since, the demand to bring amendments to restore the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in its original form grew from Dalit MPs and NDA constituents, especially Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party. An all-India protest called by Dalit outfits on April 2 witnessed largescale violence across many states. The opposition parties quickly jumped in the ensuing mayhem and blamed BJP and RSS of tacitly allowing the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. In view of the political ramifications of the issue, the government found itself in a tough spot as its assertion that it stands by the Dalit community and intends to restore the law to its original form was not taken seriously. Now, the union cabinet has approved the amendments that overrule the SC ruling and plans to not only introduce the bill but also get it passed by parliament during the ongoing Monsoon session, which is slated to end on August 10.
The move to bring these amendments and get it passed during the current Monsoon session is a decisive move on the part of the central government as it will also put the sincerity of the opposition parties to test. As the opposition parties have often resorted to disruption of parliament session during the current as well as the previous Budget session, the bill containing the amendments to the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act will test their sincerity on the issue. If they take part in the debate and help the passage of the bill, it will be a victory for the government as it will claim the credit for restoring the crucial Act to its original form. The move will bring the opposition back to the parliamentary business that for different reasons has suffered endless disruptions. If the opposition continues with its evasive move, the government will have an opportunity to expose the opposition's insincerity on the issue. SC and ST together constitute 25 per cent of India's population and is a significant political force in the country. Like all other parties, BJP-RSS wants to win the confidence of this politically-significant class of voters. As elections are due in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in next few months, BJP's initiative to placate the Dalit anger by introducing amendments to SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is a timely move to win back the support of SC and ST voters, who constitute a significant portion of the voters in these states. Another important goal that BJP aims to achieve through its overtures to Dalit communities is to cut down the importance of Mayawati as a Dalit leader and icon. She wields considerable influence among Dalit communities in Madhya Pradesh and is seeking an alliance with Congress to consolidate and expand her base in the three poll-bound states. Already, she has struck an alliance with Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and has been giving BJP top brass sleepless nights after defeating the saffron party in three consecutive bypolls in the state.
To protest the dilution of SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, Dalit organisations have called a Bharat Bandh on August 9. Last time when they called an all-India strike on April 2, the response was not only massive but also intimidating as Dalit groups supported by various opposition parties closed and blocked roads and highways across cities, bringing normal life to a standstill with incidents of arson and violence. By introducing the amendments to the Act in the ongoing session of Parliament, the government is clearly aiming to steal the thunder of the Dalit outfits, eying to whip up the discontent and anger among the Dalits and direct them towards the government. However, the merits of the SC judgment, which tried to ensure that the crucial law is not misused by false and motivated allegations, will be a casualty. The compulsion of the government to give in to the demands of the popular opinion on the issue will be a setback for legal reforms in the country.