Anger spills on the streets as Mainstream Media demonizes Dalit protests

A ‘Bharat Bandh’ or national strike call was given by Dalit organisations across the country on April 2,2018 to protest the March 20 court order diluting the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 by the bench of U.U. Lalit and A.K. Goyal. The court order says that the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act, 1989 is being “misused” and lays down procedures which will make it difficult for vulnerable communities to lodge cases against people in powerful positions such as government officials.

Dalit protest
The court order talks about provisions of setting up an inquiry committee when the complaint is filed and also removing the conditions of immediate arrests. It brings in clauses of anticipatory bail requiring a DySP to conduct “preliminary enquiry” to rule out “frivolous and motivated” complaints, and mandating “prior sanction of an appointing officer or SSP before arresting a public servant or other citizens”. The court had also said that the change was brought to “protect honest public servants discharging duties from being blackmailed with false cases under the Act”.
All these procedures are meant to severely water down the Atrocities Act. This is a step back, not just in rights based jurisprudence but also in the campaign for Dalit rights.

Dalit Protest
Understandably, large sections of people who are likely to be impacted by such dilution, are on the streets today, fighting for their rights. However, unfortunately, some of these protests have resulted in the loss of life of protesters as police have resorted to lathi charges and firing in various parts of the country.
Biased reporting by the Mainstream Media
In the background of all these developments, large scale protests followed in states such as Odisha, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi etc. Reports are coming in that these have largely been successful.
However, the mainstream media reporting on the protest of mammoth proportions appeared biased, highlighting sensational images of cars and property burning instead of grievances of the oppressed classes. The media failed to capture the widely successful and peaceful protests that took place across the country.

One of the places from where reports of “violent protests” emerged was Badmer in Rajasthan, where media houses alleged that Dalit groups and Karni sena “clashed” which caused further violence. However, eye witness accounts suggested something else.

Suresh Joga, who is a freelance journalist, reached Badmer at around 11:30 am where he saw a crowd of minimum 200 people running towards him. They were shouting, “Run! They are lathi charging.” On hearing this, all other protesters started to flee, however, he stayed behind. He witnessed that about 40-50 “Savarna hooligans” were busy chasing the people away by lathis and stones. Besides, they were also hurling casteist swear words at the protesting Dalits. Suresh realised that these were people from Karni Sena.

Though they did not have any suspicions about Suresh, they broke the glasses of all the vehicles in which the protesters had arrived at the spot. Some people were beaten mercilessly and there was incessant stone pelting.
“Somehow, I avoided attention and reached the main market, where I saw that tear gas shells were being fired. I wanted to speak to people and hence I chose a corner,” recalls Suresh. “I came to know that the people from SC/ST community had assembled peacefully for the protests and had merely reached Chauhatan circle. Suddenly, members of the notorious Karni Sena group suddenly started pelting stones. A state of mayhem ensued,” he continued.

“Situation was getting out of hand. While the protesters were sent back towards the city, the Karni Sena members were guarding the protest site, so that they wouldn’t allow any protesters on the site,” says Suresh. “Despite informing, the police kept working hand in glove with the Karni Sena members. This resulted in some more people getting beaten up, hundreds of cars damaged, cars inside one Ambedkar Hostel set on fire and more,” he adds.

“The district administration kept maintaining an arrogant and rigid attitude towards security and enforcing peace in the city, after which I had to appeal to various organisations to help,” he concludes.
Suresh could not get a satisfactory answer from any higher officials in the police department and it was only when he sent out a quick appeal, that they started receiving calls from various parts of the country and tried to stop Karni Sena and others creating nuisance only after that. By then it was already 3.30 pm.

Protests in other areas
Earlier, in Punjab, the Central Board of Secondary Education postponed class 12 and class 10 examinations owing to the request of the state government. Reportedly, the board received a letter of request dated April 1, 2018, from the Director General (School Education) of the Punjab government to postpone all its examinations on account of “apprehension of law and order problems.”
Also, several army units were kept on a standby in case the protest situation “should the situation take an ugly turn.” Further, the transport services in Punjab were suspended in lieu of the protest. Army was roped in Bhind district, here six people were injured in firing supposedly to “control the situation” as mentioned by Bhind Superintendent of Police, Prashant Khare.
Protesters in Forbesganj area from Bihar stopped trains. Similarly, in Arrah district of Bihar, protesters blocked the train along with activists of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation (CPI-ML). Many areas like Katihar saw large gatherings of people. In Ranchi, students staged protests at Women’s college Science block during ‘Bharat Bandh’ call given by Dalit organisations. Security forces resorted to lathi charge in the area. Earlier railway services were also blocked in the state capital. In some cases, police and security forces entered the hostels of students and beat them up.
Reports from Morena, Madhya Pradesh indicated that 19 people were injured and four people died in Gwalior and Morena said Makrand Deuskar, IG Law and Order. Conflicting reports emerged regarding the number of deaths in Madhya Pradesh. At least one person was killed in the state, though certain reports have placed the number of deaths at three or four. A curfew was imposed in areas of Gwalior, and Section 144 has been imposed in Sagar.

But there was barely any reporting of the peaceful and wide-scale protests that followed in many areas.
Responses from Progressive Sections
CPI(M) condemned the brutal firing that resulted in the death of protesters, it said in a statement, “The Polit Bureau condemns the brutal police firing which has led to the death of four people in Gwalior, Bhind and Morena in BJP ruled Madhya Pradesh. In many other places, there have been attacks by police on protestors.  One person has died in Alwar, Rajasthan” It also alleged that such a situation has arisen because of the failure of the Modi government to present an effective case against the dilution of Atrocities Act.

Following incidents of violence, various quarters responded empathetically, Senior journalist Kuldeep Kumar said “The figures form 2015 say that the total number of under-trials is 67.5%. Among these 53% are Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis. There have been multiple such cases in which the accused are acquitted after several years of incarceration. Then why is the problem only with the SC/ST Act?”

Anurag Anant said, “I deeply regret the violence that ensued during the protests, but can you tell me who were the people with rifles and bullets in their hands? They are immersed in the arrogance of their upper caste brethren, and the SC/ST Act is a toll against their arrogance. I know that if you are a Brahmin or Thakur, then you will get a nice post in the thana and if you are a Dalit then may be some beatings and abuses. If you are unaware of this reality, then understand that you are blinded by caste. If it’s a question of misuse then which law in this country is not being misused?”

SC declined urgent hearing of the plea on safeguarding SC/ST Act
Amid protests in various parts, the Supreme Court declined urgent hearing on the plea for stay and review of verdict putting safeguards in the SC/ST act. The plea was brought forth in the court by All India Federation of SC/ST organisations, a conglomerate of nearly 150 groups. The groups said that it will be taken up in due course.

Political Responses on the dilution of Atrocities act
Responding to the matter of dilution of law, the Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot said on April 1 that the Centre had decided to file a review petition against the Court’s decision. “Supreme Court’s decision on SC/ST Protection Act would not be able to provide justice to the suppressed people, and those accused and deserving of punishment would be saved. Union government took cognizance of it, and the Law Ministry with our ministry, took the decision that review petition will be filed against the court’s decision,” Gehlot told ANI.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi showed his concerns about the “watering down” of the Act at a time when atrocities against Dalits are actually increasing. “On the one hand, atrocities are increasing against the Dalits and tribals, and on the other the Act is being diluted,” said Gandhi.
Opposition leaders met Ram Nath Kovind past week to communicate their position against the order that has provoked widespread protests. Referring to the NCRB data they said a crime against Dalit women is committed every 15 minutes in the country and six Dalit women were raped every day They said “Rape cases against Dalit women have doubled from 2007 to 2017 and a 66 per cent increase in atrocities against Dalits have been reported in the last 10 years. This situation has only worsened in the last 3-4 years under the regime of the present government at the Centre.”

On similar lines, DMK leader TKS Elangovan said that the dilution will embolden offenders.



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