For victims of caste atrocities, long-drawn legal processes made it impossible to sustain the fight for justice.
Ahmedabad, Gujarat: Almost ten months ago, on July 11, 2016, four Dalits were brutally assaulted by a group of ‘upper’ caste men for skinning a dead cow in Mota Samadhiyala near Una, Gujarat. They were tied to a car, taken to Una and paraded around the town. A video of the Dalits being beaten with iron rods went viral on social media, triggering protests from the Dalit community unlike previously seen in the state before. The movement culminated in the Dalit Asmita Yatra led by Jignesh Mevani, which brought thousands of Dalits and Muslims together to protest against increasing injustices.
Responding to the widespread protests, in September 2016, the state government announced that they were setting up 16 special courts across Gujarat for the speedy trial of cases under Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The special courts started functioning from October 1, 2016.
Five months later, on March 25, 2017, the special court in Ahmedabad district gave a ‘guilty’ verdict on an incident that happened on December 20, 2013 – the special courts’ first-ever verdict.
Given that the conviction rate in atrocity cases in Gujarat has been falling every year since 2012, the conviction comes as a ray of hope amid a grim state of affairs. National Crime Records Bureau data reveal that in 2012, the number of atrocity cases registered were 1,026. Of these, 996 cases were chargesheeted but only 65 saw a conviction. In 2015, 1,009 cases were registered, 949 were chargesheeted – but the accused were convicted in only 11 cases.
Contrary to this pattern, the special atrocity court of Ahmedabad convicted Nitish Kumar Rajput to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 12,000 for the murder of Minaben Nagarbhai Parmar. The judgement was pronounced by Special Judge (Atrocity) Udaykumar Bhatt under IPC Section 302 (murder) and the atrocity law.
On December 20, 2013, Rajput, a resident of the Meghaninagar area of Ahmedabad, hurled casteist abuses at his 47-year-old neighbour, Minaben. When Minaben raised an objection, Rajput got agitated. Minaben and her family then called the police.
The Meghaninagar police reached the spot. However, they did not file an FIR. Instead, the police talked Minaben and her family into a compromise and dissuaded from filing a complaint after repeated request from Rajput and his family.
The next day, Rajput went to Minaben’s house and stabbed her multiple times with a dagger. Minaben suffered fatal injuries on her stomach and neck. Neighbours called ambulance but she was declared dead when it arrived.
“My sister Jayaben Parmar was home with our mother that ill-fated day. She was an eyewitness to the murder. At around 4 pm, Nitish Rajput barged into our house, enraged that we called police a day before,” says 31-year-old Vipul Parmar, the son of deceased Minaben.
“On December 20, 2013, they (Rajput and his family) apologised for hurling casteist abuses at us and the police assured us that the matter was taken care of. They suggested that we don’t file an FIR. The Rajputs are our neighbours, they stay just two houses away. Keeping in mind that we have to reside amicably in the area, we decided to not file complaint,” Vipul adds. “Little did we know the next day he will kill our mother at our own house.”
The legal battle that followed has not been easy for the Parmar family. Scared for his family’s safety, Vipul approached Mevani, who happens to reside in the same area. Though Mevani assured the family that he and the other Dalit families of Meghaninagar would stand by them, the family left their home in the first week of January 2014. Since then, the Parmars have been living in a rented house in an area called Chandkheda in Ahmedabad.
“We were up against a rich upper caste family. In my experience, during the course of this case, I have witnessed that the police mostly sympathise with affluent people who belong to upper castes. The police mostly try to not file a complaint of a Dalit. Even if a complaint is filed in case of a grievous offence, police will usually call the perpetrators and warn them, and often suggest that they leave town,” Vipul tells The Wire.
“Even when the case was subjudice, Rajput and his family tried to settle the matter out of court by offering us Rs 5 lakh. When we refused, they also resorted to threatening and coercion,” he claims.
The case was initially being heard at a sessions court and was transferred to the special atrocity court, Ahmedabad, when it became functional in October 2016. A total of 39 documents were submitted and 18 witnesses were examined before the special atrocity court pronounced its judgement.
“If the police had done its duty and registered an FIR on December 20, 2013, the incident would not have happened the next day and Minaben would have been alive today,” says Govind Parmar, the lawyer who handled the case.
“When the special atrocity courts were formed, it brought with itself a lot of hope for the cases of atrocity that languish in the sluggish legal procedure for years. However, special courts have not changed the mindset of the people involved in the dissemination of justice. Most often, maximum sentence is pronounced under various sections but not under SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. In most cases, the accused get the minimum punishment under the Act if convicted,” says Govind.
The special courts in Ahmedabad were handed over 200 cases when the special atrocity courts became functional in 15 districts – Ahmedabad (two courts – city civil court and Ahmedabad rural), Anand, Banaskatha, Bharuch, Bhavnagar, Gandhinagar, Mehsana, Kutch, Jamnagar, Junagadh, Patan, Rajkot, Surat, Surendranaar and Vadodara. Since October 2016, the special courts in Ahmedabad have received 50 more cases.
“In the 250 cases that have been handled in the special atrocity courts of Ahmedabad so far, 50 cases were settled out of the court. In these instances, the complainant usually agrees to withdraw the case after they are offered some money from the perpetrators. This practice of out-of-court settlement is so common that there have been instances when a complainant has come up to me to ask how and where they could get the money,” says Manisha Sendar, additional public prosecutor, special atrocity court of Ahmedabad.
“Many a times, cases filed under the Atrocity Act are trivial and filed against a neighbour, and are later withdrawn by the complainant. A couple of days ago, a case registered under the Kagrapith police station was brought to the court where eight families residing in a residential building had filed complaints against each other after a feud. Later, they chose to settle the matter out of court. In many cases of atrocity, where perpetrators have hurled caste-based abuses, complainants prefer an out-of-court settlement rather than pursuing the case,” says Sendar.
“There are several reasons for conviction rates being low in atrocity cases. In many cases, there isn’t enough documentary evidence and no witnesses. The court is handicapped in such cases. The atrocity court has been functioning at its full strength since October. On average, five or six cases are heard each day, but most cases are disposed for lack of witnesses. In April this year, 15 cases were disposed of,” adds Sendar.
Naina Bhatt, a lawyer who has fought several atrocity cases, says in conversation with The Wire that the lengthy legal process is one of the reasons why witnesses turn hostile. One such example is the Laljibhai Sarvaiyya case, who was burnt alive in the Ankolali village in Una in 2012 for having a relationship with a woman. The woman who was said to be in a relationship with Laljibhai had given in writing that she was not safe in her own home. The family members of the girl were among the accused. She later denied writing the letter and said in the high court that she was illiterate and therefore couldn’t have written it.
“Most Dalits are too poor to pursue a case for years. Pursuing a case in high court becomes even more costly. Under the circumstances, many accept the money being offered by the accused. At times it is also fear of the people of the upper caste, after all they have to live with them,” says Bhatt.
“The setting up of special courts have given a hope,” she adds. But “a court will not change the casteist mindset of the people of Gujarat.”