A somewhat strange purification ritual took place in Surewada village near Bhandara last April. Students appearing for a geography examination in the local school were taken aback when a teacher sprinkled what was suspected to be cow urine on them as well as their answer sheets. The headmaster and assistant teacher of the school were arrested under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The ritual was supposedly performed “to purify” the school after the transfer of a Scheduled Caste headmistress.
The case went to trial and on July 15, 2008, a special judge in Bhandara ruled that the charges under the Atrocities Act were not tenable and the prosecution had failed to establish that the liquid which was sprinkled on the students was cow urine. The judge while acquitting the headmaster and teacher, also criticised the inordinate delay of 12 days in lodging the first information report (FIR) and said that “all these facts give rise to an unnatural story put up by the prosecution.” The verdict in this instance is more the rule than the exception for offences under the Atrocities Act. According to an official report, “Crime in Maharashtra, 2007,” by the State Criminal Investigation Department (CID) released this year, the conviction rate under the Atrocities Act for 2007 was a minuscule 1.9 and for offences against Scheduled Castes it was 2.2 per cent. In 2007, the CID report says the rate of crime against Scheduled Castes was the highest in Bhandara district.
It was in Bhandara too that in February this year, a court convicted Purushottam Selokar under the Atrocities Act and sentenced him to six years rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 4,000 for abusing his neighbour and threatening her with violence. Post Khairlanji the police noticed a marked increase in the number of cases filed under the Atrocities Act. In this district villages have small populations of Scheduled Castes which makes them more vulnerable. In Khairlanji, the two remaining families have been petitioning the government to be relocated.
The initial shoddy investigation and suppression of evidence in the Khairlanji incident did not give much hope for the case. The survivor of the ghastly attack, Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, is still of the opinion that many of those guilty were discharged. He has been demanding that all the culprits who murdered his wife and three children be brought to book. The government reacted to public pressure by handing over the case to the CBI and appointing an ad hoc sessions court for the trial. The case received wide media attention and was closely followed. However, the court did not uphold the charges under the Atrocities Act. Despite this, there was an unprecedented conviction and in many ways it has set a standard of sorts.
Crimes against the Scheduled Castes have been on the rise in Maharashtra.
The CID report says there were 1166 offences against members of Scheduled Castes in 2007 as compared to 1053 during 2006, signifying an increase of 10.73 per cent. The report also points out that from 2002 to 2007, the offences against Scheduled Castes under both the Indian Penal Code and the Atrocities Act have increased by 83.91 per cent. A report by several human rights organisations including the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights in July 2008 has documented the continuing discrimination on caste lines in Maharashtra. On June 16, in Hingoli district, Sahebrao Jondhale, a 40-year-old jeep driver was burnt alive in his vehicle for refusing to ferry some influential members of a higher caste. In Vadgaon in Latur district, the six Scheduled Caste families who live there deal with discrimination on a daily basis. They cannot use the water from the village well or enter the temple. The women who dare to draw water from the well are abused.
In Ghansargaon village again in Latur district, a teenaged Scheduled Caste student Amit Sahebrao is taunted for wearing good clothes and using a mobile phone. Members of the upper castes in the village beat up his grandparents Tukaram and Sushilabai Kambli in March. Tukaram used to run a ration shop in the village which has been taken away from him and there is a social boycott of the Scheduled Caste families. The report points out that often there is a delay in registering a case under the Atrocities Act and the investigation is poor.
Recognising the pitfalls in the implementation of the Atrocities Act, the Maharashtra government has appointed a committee headed by Justice (retd) V.G. Palshikar which has to submit its recommendations on making the Act more effective by March 31, 2009. The State cannot ignore the continuing discrimination against the Scheduled Castes and the prejudices that exist even today. While there are laws in place to ensure discrimination is punished, cases have to be properly investigated so that they result in convictions. It took a heinous crime in Khairlanji to bring back the focus on crimes against the Scheduled Castes and make the state and society sit up. Caste tensions exist in many parts of the State and there is increasing polarisation between communities after the Khairlanji incident. That is all the more reason for the State and the political leadership to show some maturity and commitment to social justice.
6 months ago