Caste

The Dark Realities of the SC/ST Atrocities Act: An Ethnographic Reading

The very existence of this painful document, with its graphically detailed clauses, is an acknowledgement by the state that very specific kind of barbarities are committed against the SC and ST people.

In the context of the ongoing turbulence over the Supreme Court order regarding the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, it may be useful to know what constitutes “atrocities” under the Act. The idea here is to not go into the specifics of the recent Supreme Court order which triggered the unrest, but simply to bring to the notice of the readers the nature of the atrocities spelt out in the Act.

While studying this Act, what is striking is the kind of detail with which it was drafted. That such specific offences have been included and made punishable under this Act, can only mean that they were commonly perpetrated, and it was anticipated that they may continue against the concerned people. It also means that a very precise description of offences under this Act needed to be included, so that there will be no room for dispute, or misinterpretation or under-representation of a particular atrocity.

Fortunately, unlike a lot of other pieces of legislation, most of the content of this Act is quite straightforwardly ‘social’ in content, and not burdened with too much legalese. For someone who is not a lawyer, but a sociologist, it is like reading an ethnographic account about the lives of the concerned people. The very existence of this painful document, with its graphically detailed clauses, is an acknowledgement by the state that very specific kind of barbarities are committed against the SC and ST people.

The paragraphs below are reproduced verbatim from the original Act, still in force. For the sake of clarity, the sequencing has been changed so as to group similar kind of offences together. The list is not exhaustive, and omits some sub-clauses and explanations, as well as the prescribed punishments.

The offender has to be a non SC/ST person. Copied below are a list of activities which will count as offences if perpetrated by such a person.

Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe,—

(a) puts any inedible or obnoxious substance into the mouth of a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or forces such member to drink or eat such inedible or obnoxious substance;

(b) dumps excreta, sewage, carcasses or any other obnoxious substance in premises, or at the entrance of the premises, occupied by a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe;

(d) garlands with footwear or parades naked or semi-naked a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe;

(e) forcibly commits  on  a  member  of  a  Scheduled  Caste  or  a  Scheduled Tribe  any  act,  such  as removing clothes from the person, forcible tonsuring of head, removing moustaches, painting face or body or any other similar act, which is derogatory to human dignity;

(x) corrupts or fouls the water of any spring, reservoir or any other source ordinarily used by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes so as to render it less fit for the purpose for which it is ordinarily used;

(y) denies a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe any customary right of passage to a place of public resort or obstructs such member so as to prevent him from using or having access to a place of public resort to which other members of public or any other section thereof have a right to use or access to;

(za) obstructs or prevents a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any manner with regard to—

        (A) using common property resources of an area, or burial or cremation ground equally with others or using any river, stream, spring, well, tank, cistern, water-tap or other watering place, or any bathing ghat, any public conveyance, any road, or passage;

       (B) mounting or riding bicycles or motor cycles or wearing footwear or new clothes in public places or taking out wedding procession, or mounting a horse or any other vehicle during wedding processions;

      (C) entering any place of worship which is open to the public or other persons professing the same religion or taking part in, or taking out, any religious, social or cultural processions including jatras;

      (D) entering any educational institution, hospital, dispensary, primary health centre, shop or place of public entertainment or any other public place; or using any utensils or articles meant for public  use in any place open to the public;

    (E) practicing any profession or the carrying on of any occupation, trade or business or employment in any job which other members of the public, or any section thereof, have a right to use or have access to;

(zb) causes physical harm or mental agony of a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe on the allegation of practicing witchcraft or being a witch;

(k) performs, or promotes dedicating a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe woman to a deity, idol, object of worship, temple, or other religious institution as a devadasi or any other similar practice or permits aforementioned acts;

(w) (i) intentionally touches a woman belonging to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, knowing that she belongs to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, when such act of touching is of a sexual nature and is without the recipient‘s consent; (ii) uses words, acts or gestures of a sexual nature towards a woman belonging to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, knowing that she belongs to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe.

(h) makes a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe to do ―begar or other forms of forced or bonded labour other than any compulsory service for public purposes imposed by the Government;

(i) compels a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe to dispose or carry human or animal carcasses, or to dig graves; 

(j) makes a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe to do manual scavenging or employs or permits the employment of such member for such purpose;

(f) wrongfully occupies or cultivates any land, owned by, or in the possession of or allotted to, or notified by any competent authority to be allotted to, a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, or gets such land transferred;

(g) wrongfully dispossesses a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe from his land or premises or interferes with the enjoyment of his rights, including forest rights, over any land or premises or water or irrigation facilities or destroys the crops or takes away the produce therefrom. Explanation.––For the purposes of clause (f) and this clause, the expression ―wrongfully includes—

         (A) against the person‘s will;

        (B) without the person‘s consent;

        (C) with the person‘s consent, where such consent has been obtained by putting the person, or any other person in whom the person is interested in fear of death or of hurt; or

      (D) fabricating records of such land;

(l) forces or intimidates or prevents a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe—

        (A) not to vote or to vote for a particular candidate or to vote in a manner other than that provided by law;

       (B) not to file a nomination as a candidate or to withdraw such nomination; or

      (C) not to propose or second the nomination of a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe as a candidate in any election;

(m) forces or intimidates or obstructs a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, who is a member or a Chairperson or a holder of any other office of a Panchayat under Part IX of the Constitution or a Municipality under Part IXA of the Constitution, from performing their normal duties and functions;

(n) after the poll, causes hurt or grievous hurt or assault or imposes or threatens to impose social or economic boycott upon a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or prevents from availing benefits of any public service which is due to him;

(o) commits any offence under this Act against a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe for having voted or not having voted for a particular candidate or for having voted in a manner provided by law;

(p) institutes false, malicious or vexatious suit or criminal or other legal proceedings against a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe;

(q) gives any false or frivolous information to any public servant and thereby causes such public servant to use his lawful power to the injury or annoyance of a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe;

(z) forces or causes a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe to leave his house, village or other place of residence: Provided that nothing contained in this clause shall apply to any action taken in discharge of a public duty;

(zc) imposes or threatens a social or economic boycott of any person or a family or a group belonging to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe:

(2)(iv) commits mischief by fire or any explosive substance intending to cause or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby cause destruction of any building which is ordinarily used as a place of worship or as a place for human dwelling or as a place for custody of the property by a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe;

(r) intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view;

(v) by words either written or spoken or by any other means disrespects any late person held in high esteem by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes; 

(u) by words either written or spoken or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise promotes or attempts to promote feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will against members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes..

(t) destroys, damages or defiles any object generally known to be held sacred or in high esteem by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes. Explanation.––For the purposes of this clause, the expression ―object means and includes statue, photograph and portrait; “                                           

Source: Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (updated), chapter II (as accessed on April 3, 2018).

Meena Radhakrishna is a Sociologist and a former faculty of Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University.

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