What started out as a Brahmin versus Dalit office tussle in 2007 at a government college in Pune’s Shivaji Nagar locality – a Patidar boss shielded the Brahmin superior who gave adverse remarks on the professional conduct of his Dalit subordinate – has now set the streets of India on fire.
A decade and a Supreme Court judgment later, the case of the Mahadalit named Bhaskar Gaikwad, his Brahmin superior Satish Bhise and their Patidar boss Subhash Mahajan won’t be the last one, either. Gaikwad’s contention, in brief, was as follows: His office superiors, Bhise the Brahmin and the other a non-Dalit, in an annual confidential report, made unfavourable remarks on his professional conduct. In their report they observed that he didn’t deserve a promotion, required extensive professional training, was unfit to work at the regional level of the educational institution and was in the habit of making false allegations. These adverse remarks were deliberately communicated to cause him injury which constituted an offence under the Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. But Mahajan the Patidar who was serving as the director of technical education in Maharashtra at the time did not give sanction to prosecute Gaikwad’s superiors. This shielded Bhise the Brahmin and his colleague from criminal prosecution under the Atrocities Act.
On March 20, the Supreme Court of India quashed the case and ruled in favour of Mahajan by making three critical observations. Firstly, a public servant can be arrested only after approval of the appointing authority and a non-public servant after approval by a senior superintendent of police (SSP). Secondly, once the public servant is arrested, the grounds of his continued detention will be examined by a magistrate. Thirdly, a preliminary enquiry needs to be conducted by a deputy superintendent of police (DSP) on whether the allegations being made under the Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act are frivolous or motivated. It are these contentions that were upheld by the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
This still won’t be the end of the road for the silent caste wars that rage in government offices and the not so silent caste vilification that permeates the fabric of life across India. According to the National Commission for Schedule Castes (NCSC) 29,931 files relating to caste oppression were pending before it in 2015-16. Many of the pending cases related to service matters of Dalit and other backward caste (OBC) government employees. These included complaints from Dalits about being bypassed for promotion, non-payment of reimbursements, unfavourable transfers and even matters related to appointment on compassionate grounds and even allotment of petrol pumps.
Complainants whose files are pending or have been disposed by the NCSC belong to various government departments – from the Intelligence Bureau to railways to state utilities to public sector banks to government educational institutes and many others. From 2013-14 to 2015-16, there has been a noticeable jump in the number of service related cases that are pending before the NCSC especially at its regional offices (See Graphic). In 2013-14, there were 1,162 cases service related complaints before the Commission. In 2015-16, the pendency of service related cases jumped more than threefold to 3,777. At regional offices there was only a negligible rise in the number of cases resolved and disposed despite the fact that the number of service related complaints received every year increased by 35 per cent from 2013-14 to 2015-16.
The number of cases related to atrocities and harassment received at the regional offices of the commission rose by 27 per cent even as the number pending cases more than doubled. Atrocities include complaints on rape, land conflict, murder, social boycott and arson. In what would be a worrying trend for the Modi administration, the number of cases related to atrocity and harassment resolved by the commission declined between 2013-14 to 2015-16. This decline in resolution wasn’t just related to atrocities.
Resolution of cases related to economic and social development, use of fake caste certificates by non-Scheduled Castes, welfare and health related complaints also declined at the regional offices of the commission. At present, the commission has regional offices in 12 states in India in cities like Chandigarh, Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Guwahati among others. The NCSC in its annual report tabled in Parliament stated that given the massive volume of complaints received at its state level offices it planned to open more offices in cities like Jaipur, Dehradun, Ranchi and others.
At the commission’s headquarters in Central Delhi’s Khan Market, the situation is a more paradoxical. While the resolution of complaints has increased 20 times since 2013-14, new complaints have doubled. The pendency of cases at the headquarters has more than doubled from 2013-14 to 2015-16 (See Graphic). Majority of the new cases received at the Khan Market headquarters of the commission relate to atrocity and harassment charges. Atrocity related cases increased from 1,077 to 2,284 during this three year period. At Delhi and its 12 regional offices, the commission has undoubtedly been flooded with new complaints at a rate much faster than it can handle.
While the number of new cases across the board have risen by 40 per cent, the resolution of cases has increased by just 15 per cent. The NCSC admitted before Parliament that it is handicapped when things boil down to speedy resolution of issues. The NCSC stated, “The rules of procedure of the Commission do not prescribe any time limit for investigation and enquiry of complaints received in the Commission. Also, as per mandate of the commission, though the commission has all the power of civil courts trying a suit, the disposal of the complaints depends on both the nature and gravity of the complaints as well as on the response from the public authorities who are entrusted with ensuring that the rights as guaranteed in the Constitution of India regarding Scheduled Castes are safeguarded. Hence the speed and adequacy of response from the authorities concerned are the defining factors which determine the actual disposal of the complaints.”
While the pace of resolution at NCSC is understandable given the nature of allegations (especially related to the service matters as was evident in the Mahajan case), the courts and the police have also found it hard to prove cases against those accused of crimes against Dalits. For every 10 people arrested by the police on charges of crimes against Dalits, only one is convicted. For every person convicted of crime against Dalits, three are acquitted. The situation is no different when it comes to courts. For every person convicted of crime against Dalits in a court of law, three people are acquitted of similar crimes. There were almost 1,30,000 such cases pending in courts across India. When it comes to investigating complaints under the Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, matters get even more contorted. One out of nine cases under the Atrocities Act before the police in 2016 were closed either because of wrong facts or because the complaint was found to be false.
While the fire on the streets may be temporarily doused and the government may score brownie points by reluctantly resorting to legal recourse, it may not become any easier for the guardians of law to separate the wheat from the chaff while investigating alleged crimes against India’s lowest castes.