Lamenting cast-based violence
By dismissing appeals from assailants in the Mirchpur horror of 2010, Delhi High Court stands firmly against casteist exploitation
The recent times have been a mixed bag for legal developments in Dalit rights. While the Supreme Court sought to dilute the protections in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 last year in a much-criticised judgment in Subhash Kashinath Mahajan v. State of Maharashtra case, Parliament enacted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities), 2018 to reinstate the diluted protections in the Act, in the form of not granting anticipatory bail or having preliminary enquiry before registering a complaint under the Act.
In another significant development, the Delhi High Court last week dismissed the appeals filed by 16 Jat community members who were convicted in the horrific Mirchpur killings in Hisar, Haryana, that had resulted in the death of a 60-year-old man and his disabled daughter, belonging to the Balmiki caste in April 2010. On April 21, 2010, a mob of 200-300 Jat community burnt down an entire village of Balmiki community in Mirchpur, Hisar wherein 18 houses were burnt down, 51 persons were seriously injured, large-scale rioting and looting, and finally, the horrific death of two persons.
This mob violence and killings were sparked owing to an innocuous incident of a dog belonging to a member of Balmiki community barking at one of the Jat boys in the locality, which resulted in a scuffle and violence between two communities, thereby creating a huge fear amongst Balmiki members of a possible violent retaliation from the Jat community. The judgment notes, in detail, the atmosphere and developments prior to the riots which finally culminated in the caste-based mayhem and violence against the Balmiki community on April 21, 2010. After the violence, fearing for their lives, 254 families left the village and took shelter in a farmhouse nearby. The complete laxity of the police to protect the Balmiki community is also noted.
Though the trial initially commenced at Hisar, wherein 103 accused were charged including 5 juveniles, the Supreme Court transferred the trial to a Special Court in Delhi, for protecting the right to fair trial and providing a safer environment for witnesses to testify, in December 2010. On September 24, 2011, the Ld. Trial Court convicted 15 accused of various offences under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) (three of them were sentenced to life imprisonment), and acquitted 82 accused of all charges. On appeal to the High Court, the convicted persons, the State, and the complainants all challenged the trial court judgment in various counts.
The High Court categorically held that "there is no doubt that it was indeed a mob which made a coordinated and premeditated attack on the Balmiki Basti". It further held that the members of the Jat community had congregated in an unlawful assembly with the common object of setting fire to the properties of the Balmiki community and perpetrating violence against them, in order to teach the community a 'lesson'. In conclusion, the Court overturned the acquittals of 20 accused and convicted them, while upholding the conviction of 13 convicts, and even enhancing the sentences for some of them. The Court also notes with dismay the lack of rehabilitation of the 254 families who fled Mirchpur in 2010, despite repeated Government promises, including the suggestion to rehabilitate them in a separate township to be built by the Government and not in Mirchpur. Very significantly, the High Court observed that "71 years after Independence, instances of atrocities against scheduled castes by those belonging to dominant castes have shown no sign of abating. The incidents that took place in Mirchpur between 19th and 21st April 2010 serve as yet another grim reminder of "the complete absence of two things in Indian society" as noted by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar when he tabled the final draft of the Constitution of India before the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949. One was 'equality' and the other, 'fraternity'.
The history of modern Independent India is replete with large-scale massacres and caste-based violence against Dalit, including Khairlanji massacre in Maharashtra in 2006, which is still awaiting a decision from Supreme Court, with little redress or justice to the victims, or even reliefs to them. The Una flogging in Gujarat in 2016, along with almost daily instances of violence and discrimination against Dalit members, clearly show the entrenched caste hierarchies in the country, which only get encouragement from the ruling establishment. Amidst all these, the Mirchpur judgment in its recognition of the casteist nature of the violence perpetrated by the Jat community on the Balmiki members is a ray of hope for judicial understanding and acknowledgement of horrific caste discrimination in India.
(The author is an Attorney. The views expressed are strictly personal)