The UPA Cabinet has reportedly approved some amendments to strengthen the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Amendments are sorely needed, since the conviction rate under the Act is abysmal – as low as 1-5%.
The scope of the Act needs to be expanded. As the Act stands now, various common forms of caste discrimination are not recognised by it: such as social and economic boycotts, segregation of Dalit children in schools, two tumbler system; preventing Dalits from accessing public wells or ponds or temples.
One of the reasons for the low conviction rate has been the reluctance of courts to accept that caste atrocity was the intent behind a crime like rape or murder. In the Khairlanji gang-rape and massacre case, for instance, the court did convict the accused, but refused to do so under the SC/ST POA Act. To correct this situation, it is necessary to amend the law so that the Act can be invoked if the perpetrator of the crime knew that the victim was of the Dalit caste. For instance, in a rape case, of course the evidentiary requirements to establish rape will remain the same as in the rape law. But the perpetrator can be punished under the SC/ST POA Act if it is established that, at the time of the rape, he knew that the victim was a dalit.
It is crucial that the SC/ST POA Act must cover all dalits and adivasis irrespective of religion. Merely converting to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Sikhism does not end the caste discrimination faced by the dalits and adivasis. There is widespread evidence of continued caste discrimination and violence faced by dalits who have converted to Christianity or Islam.
Preventing and monitoring mechanisms, as well as measures to ensure accountability of the State machinery, are also called for. Failure of State officials to act in accordance with their duty to prevent and curb caste-based violence must be made punishable.
It has been seen in caste-based massacres (such as at Bathe and Bathani Tola) that police bias resulted in a shoddy investigation, where crucial evidence was lost. It must be mandatory in every case of caste-based mass violence, for the investigation and collection of evidence to be done by Special Investigation Teams. Time-bound trials must be ensured. Timely compensation and rehabilitation of the survivors must be ensured.