On 2 April, thousands of Dalits across the country took to the streets to protest the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, and declared a nationwide bandh. Through the day protestors faced aggression from the police and Hindutva goons, resulting in the deaths of ten Dalits. The next morning’s headlines, however, seemed to suggest that it was Dalits who had done the killing. “Nine killed as angry Dalits take to the streets, Madhya Pradesh most affected” declared the Indian Express. ThePioneer titled a story, “Dalit rage singes India; 8 killed.” Many were more concerned with the inconvenience caused by the bandh than the factors that led to it. By and large, the protest saw no support from outside the Dalit community. The media struggled to understand or even find out who organised the protest.
On 20 March, a Supreme Court bench of Justices Adarsh Kumar Goel and Uday Umesh Lalit laid down “procedural safeguards” to prevent the misuse of the Act, which was legislated in 1989 to deal with hate crimes against Dalits and Adivasis. The judgment stipulated that “the arrest of a public servant can only be after approval of the appointing authority and of a non-public servant after approval by the SSP,” and mandated that a preliminary inquiry be made by a deputy superintendent of the police before an FIR is registered under the Atrocities Act. The judgment stated, “working of the Atrocities Act should not result in perpetuating casteism.”
Such dispensing of law, blind to social-justice concerns, immediately put under the spotlight the lack of diversity in the higher judiciary, an issue raised by KR Narayanan, the first Dalit president. “Two upper cast judges of the Supreme Court of India have turned the SC & ST Act from protecting SC/ST to protecting Brahmins,” the senior advocate Indira Jaising tweeted, “no surprises, the SC has no SC/ST judges at all.” (Justice Goel has been the general secretary of the All-India Adhiwakta Parishad, the lawyers’ wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Lalit’s father, UR Lalit, has also held the post). Out of the 24 sitting judges of the Supreme Court, eight are Brahmins. No judge belonging to a scheduled caste or tribe has been elevated to the Supreme Court in the last seven years. And there has been only one Dalit chief justice in history.
Mohan Gopal, an eminent jurist, pointed out in a public address that the SC/ST Act was the product of the Dalit movement and “is a literary expression of the suffering of Dalits of this country.” He added, “Like the Criminal Tribes Act that declares an entire tribe criminal, this judgment does something unprecedented in the judicial history of the world. It takes away the right to credibility of 300 million Dalits ... and declared them an untrustworthy community. This is an atrocity in itself.” Gopal pointed out the absurdity of the judgment’s provision that a complainant must first face an inquiry.
The judgment contrasts starkly with the last amendment to the SC/ST Act, made in 2015, which was first introduced by the previous United Progressive Alliance government as an ordinance. It had listed many offences deemed common against Dalits: tonsuring of heads and moustaches; garlanding with footwear; denial of access to irrigation facilities or forest rights; coercion into disposing of or carrying human or animal carcasses, using or permitting manual scavenging; obstruction of filing nominations to contest elections; and removing a person’s garments, among others. It used the term “willful negligence” to define the behaviour of government employees at all levels who showed reluctance to act in caste-discrimination cases, starting with the registration of complaints. It also defined aspects of “dereliction of duty.” The latest amendment gives the power back to the same government officials to discriminate freely, reversing the progress made by the last amendment.