The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in its annual report Crime in India 2021 captures the trends of crime in our country. The report contains crime against vulnerable sections such as women, children, senior citizens, as well as people hailing from historically oppressed communities like Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST).
As it is mandated by the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, cases of violence and discrimination against SCs and STs need to be recorded separately for review and monitoring purposes. These atrocities are primarily linked to the caste and ethnicity related issues with the perpetrators usually belonging to communities other than SCs and STs, i.e., mostly dominant caste and social groups of society.
It is reported that a total of 50,900 cases were registered for committing crime against SCs and 8,802 cases were registered for committing crime against STs in the country. It shows a consistent increase in the crime rate. In comparison to the year 2020, in 2021 the rate of atrocities has increased by 6.4% in case of ST’s and by 1.2% in case of SC’s.
The nature of cases reported include rape of women and children, attempt to rape, sexual harassment, acid attack, assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty, stalking, voyeurism, kidnaping and abduction, riots, robbery, arson, criminal intimidation, intentionally insult or intimidate with intent to humiliate, occupy/take possession of lands belonging to SCs and STs, prevent/deny or obstruct usage of public places/passages, force to leave the place of residence or social boycott and practices of untouchability.
The states having maximum number of cases include Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha. Together, these top five state account for more than 70% of the cases of atrocities against SCs. Meanwhile, MP, Rajasthan, Odisha, Maharashtra and Telangana together account for more than 75% of the total atrocity cases against STs. In atrocity cases against both SCs and STs, the state of Odisha has featured among top five states having many cases.
There are a total of 70,818 cases of atrocities against SCs and 12,159 against STs pending for investigation at the end of the year 2021. A total of 2,63,512 cases of SCs and 42,512 cases of STs were placed for trial in the courts. At the end of the year, more than 96 percent of the total cases were still pending for trial. Though the charge-sheeting percentage was more than 80% but the conviction rate was below 40%. This shows the status of our criminal justice administration specially access of vulnerable victims to speedy trial and justice.
It has been a matter of deep concern for the state of Odisha that has a sizable population of SCs and STs. But the rate of crime and atrocities against SCs and STs is no way less than that in the states of UP, Rajasthan and MP.
The report says atrocities against SCs in Odisha shows an increasing trend during the last three years – in 2019, the number of cases registered was 1,886; in 2020, the number increased to 2,046, and in 2021 the number of cases further increased to 2,327. Same was the case of STs as the reported number of cases registered were 576 in 2019, that increased to 624 in 2020, and 676 for the year 2021. Till the end of the year 2021, a total 2,692 cases of atrocities against SCs and 802 cases of STs were pending investigation by competent authority, and 16,355 cases of SCs and 5,852 cases of STs were pending trial in different designated special courts in Odisha.
Why such an increase in the cases of atrocities against the poor and marginalised, mostly the working-class people of a backward State such as Odisha? It is also being argued by social activists and researchers working on implementation of POA Act, 1989 that the reported data by the Home Department were the cases registered in different police stations of the state while there were equal number of cases that are underreported due to a number of reasons, as it is not easy to get the cases registered due to non-cooperation by police and many cases are being settled under pressure by influential people of dominant castes and by mostly those belonging to ruling parties.
Poverty, illiteracy, landlessness and economic dependency of the marginalized, especially the SCs and STs in Odisha makes them more vulnerable to atrocities. Unfortunately, the institutional mechanism to monitor such cases of crime and atrocities against SCs and STs in the state has been dysfunctional as the state vigilance and monitoring committee under the chairmanship of the chief minister has not been formed and hence no review meetings for a long time, as is the fate of district committees headed by the district collectors.
On the other hand, lack of organization at the grassroots as self-defense mechanisms to provide security against the organized atrocities has been largely absent due to lack of proper information about legal mechanisms. The rise in economic distress, landlessness, unemployment and low income along with untouchability practice make their life miserable and defenseless. There are also instances of false cases being registered against the poor and the marginalized SCs and STs to harass them and also to force the victims to withdraw the atrocity cases.
The NCRB in its Prison Statistics India 2014 reports that the percentage of SCs, STs, Muslims and Christians inmates is proportionately higher than their national population percentage. It shows the vulnerability of the socially and economically marginalized groups in our continued criminal justice administration and their access to justice.
A study on women prisoners by the State Commission for Women, Odisha, revealed that about 63 per cent of women belong to SCs and STs and other backward communities and a majority of them are economically poor and illiterate. The present scenario of criminal justice administration is extremely discouraging without a timely and fair trial to ensure justice. The provisions of the legal aid and justice delivery system have not served much to the marginalized section of our country, including backward states such as Odisha. Many of the innocent SCs and STs in south western parts are being jailed with accusations of left extremist involvement without a scope of representation to prove their innocence.
The legal-aid authority and prisoners welfare fund has failed to cover major prisoners to ensure minimum humanitarian aid to the poor victims. Their suffering has been manifold, with a damaging impact on their family life. The long-delayed process of judicial trials for the illiterate poor has been an excruciating experience. While taking forward the agenda of economic growth and social development, the state government must seriously look into the age-old issues of crime against humanity to build a socially inclusive Odia society.
*Views expressed are the author’s own. The writer is a social activist from Bhubaneswar, Odisha.
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