Despite a 2015 Amendment to the Prevention of Atrocities Act, Justice Remains Out of Reach to Scheduled Castes

Chandrakant Gaikwad's body at the Rural Hospital Baramati, Pune. Priyadarshi Telang
16 May, 2016

On 12 February 2013, Chandrakant Gaikwad was visiting his friend Dada Shivaji Jadhav at his hotel in Jamb village in western Maharashtra. Between nine and ten in the morning, a white Bolero pulled up to the two friends, who were conversing outside. Five men led by Satpal Mahadev Rupanvar, exited the car holding revolvers and began firing bullets, eventually shooting Gaikwad seven times. Jadhav managed to run away, and as he looked back, he saw Rupanvar bludgeoning Gaikwad’s head with a stone. On 25 November 2015, Jadhav told me how after hiding in a nearby riverbed, he had returned to find Gaikwad’s body lying in a pool of blood.

Gaikwad was a Dalit belonging to the Matang caste, which is listed as a Scheduled Caste in India and in his village of 1,250, only around 10 of its scheduled caste citizens own land. He worked with the National Dalit Movement for Justice, helping Dalits who are victims of crimes committed by those outside their community—known under the law as atrocities—file cases under the 1989 Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities Act), or PoA. The NDMJ is a secular, non-party movement of academics, volunteers and organizations headed by Dalits to initiate advocacy in mass action to address the issues of caste based discrimination. Gaikwad’s surviving colleagues and family members told me that his death was a direct consequence of his work.

Months before the murder, Rupanvar—a member of the Dhangar community, which makes up 60 percent of Jamb’s population—and his friends began harassing Jadhav. In the written complaint that Jadhav filed after the murder, he said that “Satpal came to my hotel at night along with his friends and had dinner—when I demanded for bill, he forcefully broken my drawers and grab money.”

Since 2012, Gaikwad had been helping Jadhav file a case against Rupanvar under the PoA act. Earlier that year, Gaikwad had also been a witness in a case against Rupanvar. Rupanvar and his associates began threatening Gaikwad and Jadhav, allegedly going so far as to publicly state that they were planning to kill them. Jadhav said that after Rupanvar’s threats, he and Gaikwad went to the police, who did not take their complaints seriously, or offer them any sort of protection.

The police inaction that Gaikwad and Jadhav faced is an example of one of many systematic obstacles Dalits face in their interactions with the law, and which the PoA has not completely rectified. Although the PoA act guarantees atrocity victims legal recourse, deficiencies within the act and its implementation allow the potential for miscarriages of justice at every stage: from the moment the First Information Report is filed, to the crime’s investigation, to the trial, and even in the appeals process.

Announcing the need for passing such legislation on his Independence Day address on 15 August 1987, the then prime minister Rajeev Gandhi enlisted PS Krishnan, a former secretary in the Ministry of Welfare, to draft the PoA act. At the time, Krishnan was the Special Commissioner for Scheduled Castes, and he had spent the past nine years monitoring atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India.

On 23 April 2016, I met Krishnan in his Gurgaon apartment. He described the PoA as the first time it was legislatively recognized that circumstances make SC/STs uniquely vulnerable to violence. “We use the term atrocities when it is not a clash between two approximately equal parties. One is very weak, the other is overwhelmingly strong and the type of crimes committed are ferocious and cruel,” he told me, continuing that he saw the PoA as acknowledgment that unique steps must be taken to enforce protections guaranteed by article 46 of the constitution, which insists that the state “shall protect them [scheduled castes and tribes] from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.”

Yet despite his best efforts, by the time the act was passed, it had been changed in ways that made it unequipped to fully face the problem of atrocities. Indeed, according to the National Crime Bureau of India, conviction rates under the PoA Act are notably lower than general conviction rates—in 2014, the most recent year that government statistics on atrocities are available, only 15.6 percent of cases filed under the PoA ended in a conviction, while the general conviction rate was 45 percent.

Krishnan told me that he considered one of the most detrimental changes in the original act to have been in the wording of section 14, which reads, “for the purpose of providing for speedy trials, the State Government shall—specify for each district a Court of Sessions to be a Special Court to try offences under this Act.”

Instead of calling for states to designate Special Courts, the act’s original draft, Krishnan told me, had directed them to establish exclusive courts that would only try atrocities cases, every day, until the trial was finished—ideally within two months. He described the way this clause was changed as “dishonest” and its current implementation as ineffective. According to Krishnan and many of the Dalit activists that I spoke to, nothing about the current special courts have been changed but their names. They still try other cases, and do not engender the speedy trials they were designed to facilitate.

Last year, the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment released a report citing lengthy trials as a factor influencing low conviction rates under the PoA. Between 2011 and 2014, as conviction rates fell, pendency rates rose by nearly 10 percent to a startling 88.7 percent. Even in Gaikwad’s case, where, unlike many cases, the FIR was filed quickly and correctly, an autopsy was performed, there were several witnesses to the crime, and where Rupanvar’s statement to the court, originally in Marathi, was “we went to Dada Jadhav hotel and killed Chandrakant,” nearly three years after the crime, the issue at hand is still whether or not Rupanvar should be granted bail. This is despite the fact that the Baramati courthouse, situated 20 km from Jamb Village, has been designated a Special Court. Activists from the National Dalit Movement for Justice who have been working on this case told me on 30 March, “In this case we are taking minimum time. In other cases you can’t imagine.”

Since victims of atrocities belong to socially and economically disadvantaged sections of society, longer trials are especially likely to negatively impact conviction rates under the PoA. While cases are being delayed, pressure from dominant groups is often applied to victims and witnesses, who are either threatened or bribed to retract their testimonies or withdraw their cases.

During my conversation with Gaikwad’s brother Sanjay outside Baramati’s courthouse on 25 November, a group of men sidled up to the building and loitered there while we waited for the hearing to begin. Sanjay told me that they were Rupanvar’s supporters, who materialised and broadcasted their presence every time there was a development in the case.

To emphasise their lack of support, Sanjay pulled a wedding invitation out of his shirt and showed it to me. “Today only one wedding is happening in that community,” he explained. “So they have printed Rupanvar’s name here as a chief guest. Still he is in the prison but they have printed his name also means the whole community is supporting him.”

In addition to continuing to support Rupanvar, many people in the village are also actively against the Gaikwad family, and Sanjay’s relatives have been repeatedly threatened. He described how since his brother’s death, members of the Dhangar community had taunted him and his surviving brother, “What can you do now? Your person is gone. He is no more, so you don’t have power. What can you do? We will kill one of you too.” He told me that his brother “is now very much suffering. He feels that Satpal will come out and kill [him] and sometimes he can’t eat properly out of fear—he’s living under pressure.” After years of this sort of treatment, it is no surprise that witnesses often turn hostile, and deny their previous statements to the court.

Long trials also make it more difficult for witnesses to accurately remember the event about which they are testifying, which the defense often seizes as way to delegitimize evidence against the perpetrators. Court cases are also financially draining, and atrocity victims often have less financial resources than their perpetrators, who exploit the advantages of delays by intentionally causing them.

When I visited Baramati, it was in a taxi from Pune with activists involved with the case. At the courthouse, after we waited several hours, Rupanvar’s lawyer asked for the matter to be adjourned and the judge allowed it, effectively wasting the 3000 rupees the advocates had paid for the taxi, along with their time.

Even if a trial that drags on for years does end in a conviction, Krishnan does not see this as an effective implementation of the act, because it lessens the deterrent effect. He told me he envisioned the act as something that would make potential perpetrators of caste violence decide against enacting it, for fear of legal consequences. Under the current system, he explained “Punishment should follow the crime with such rapidity that the criminal knows that the punishment is for this crime and the people also know what is the crime and what is the punishment.” He felt delays would remove the memory from the public mind, “[If] the punishment comes 15 years later, nobody will know what the man is being punished for. So the deterrent effect will be lost or diluted.”

Twenty years after the act was passed, during which Krishnan was in the field, examining its implementation, he began working on an amendment to solve some of the problems he and the activists working with him had observed. In December of 2015, the act’s first amendment was finally passed, and it included many of the changes Krishnan had envisioned. The amendment explicitly requires that states “Establish a Special Court in one or more districts” and that in these Special Courts try cases day-to-day, so that trials can be completed within two months.

Although he believes that exclusive special court will eventually lead to timely trials, which may then deter people from committing atrocities, Krishnan is adamant that “this is not the last step. We will require a further amendment and then we will also require various measures for enforcing the implementation of this act. It won’t happen immediately. Pressure has to be built.”

Until the 2015 amendment yields cognizable changes, Dalits remain in a double bind. The new amendment includes that victims have the right “to take assistance from the Non-Governement Organisations, social workers or advocates,” acknowledging that without the intervention of activists, the system often fails to serve the scheduled castes and tribes. Yet as Gaikwad’s murder reminds us, those assisting Dalits in their pursuit of justice continue to be risking their lives.