Shivraj Chouhan's Legally Untenable Promise on SC/ST Act Betrays BJP's Desperation in MP

The chief minister doesn’t seem to be bothered as much about the legal tenability of his promise as about his party's electoral prospects in the impending elections.

Bhopal: Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has sought to provide contestable legitimacy to a dubious sense of victimhood among upper castes.

On September 20, he assured them that no one in the state will be arrested under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act without prior police investigation into the complaints.

Chouhan’s assurance came in the wake of widespread upper-caste protests against the constitutional amendments in the Act. The parliament had to restore the Act to its original form through amendments because the Supreme Court had ruled in March that it provided for the instant arrest of the accused and, therefore, is susceptible to “misuse”. The chief minister’s assurance echoes the Supreme Court’s unturned ruling.

Whether the chief minister’s decision is legally tenable can be challenged in courts. The state government is yet to take a formal decision on his statement. State’s advocate general Pushpendra Kaurav said the government will take an administrative decision on the chief minister’s promise after examining all aspects related to the Act’s provisions.

However, Chouhan doesn’t seem to be bothered as much about the legal tenability of his promise as about his party’s electoral prospects in the impending elections. The BJP is getting increasingly rattled as anti-reservation protests threaten to undercut its core vote bank, the 15% upper castes in Madhya Pradesh. The party doesn’t want to annoy the 15% Dalit and 21% tribal votes in the state either. Together, the SC (35) and ST (47) reserved constituencies account for 82 of the state’s 230 seats. The BJP had won 67 of them in 2013.

As the Dalit-upper caste schism has widened in the state because of the Act, the BJP is desperate to strike an electorally advantageous balance ahead of the assembly election. Chouhan’s promise betrays that desperation. The gambit, however, is fraught with the risk of the BJP ending up antagonising both the sections. The risk is apparent in studied restraint among Dalits in the face of upper-caste protests that have enormously vitiated social harmony in the state.

A spate of protests

Since September 3, not a day has passed in the state when leaders of the BJP or Congress have not been mobbed or shown black flags by upper-caste protestors. It started with anti-reservation youths showing black flags to Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia in Guna. Over the next fortnight, Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan, Union ministers, MPs, MLAs, state presidents of the BJP and Congress and even the chief minister have faced stray protests against the Act.

For three initial days, protests were largely confined to Gwalior-Chambal region. Soon enough, other towns bordering Uttar Pradesh in north-east Madhya Pradesh known as Vindhya region witnessed youths waiving black flags to politicians. In Sidhi district, nine protestors were arrested for pelting stones at the chief minister’s chariot during his Jan Ashirvad Yatra. In Churhat town of the district, he escaped unhurt in an election meeting when a youth hurled a slipper at him. He later identified himself as a member of the Karni Sena, a Rajput organisation accused of involvement in violent protests.

Significantly, the large swathe of the north and north-east Madhya Pradesh, where anti-reservation protests occurred, is notorious for maximum cases of atrocities against Dalits. Cases such as Dalit grooms being beaten up for riding a horse, Dalit girls being burnt alive after they were gangraped, Dalit shanties being set on fire and Dalit peoples’ representatives being denied entry in meetings with government officials are not uncommon. Untouchability is rampant. Thakurs and Brahmins rule the roost in regions and feudalism still persists. These regions were under the rule of erstwhile princely states before independence.

Members and supporters of Karni Sena and other upper-caste organisations, participate in a protest over the recent amendment to the SC/ST Act in Bhopal. Credit: PTI

In contrast, in the Mahakoshal region in central Madhya Pradesh, which was under direct British rule, social ties between Dalit and non-Dalit are not so disharmonious. That partly explains why protests against the Act have been far fewer and less aggressive here.

Initially, protestors were faceless lumpens who would, all of a sudden, materialise to mob their targeted leaders with black flags in hands and quickly melt away after raising slogans. Most of them comprise unemployed youth who can be often spotted in action in local religious functions such as Kanwar Yatras, Devi Jagrans or community feasts at assorted temples. These religious functions take place, mostly, under the patronage of local BJP leaders. No wonder, a majority of the upper-caste protestors are BJP supporters.

False cases have not been slapped on them. But propaganda against the ‘misuse’ of the Act by Dalits has spawned a false narrative of victimhood among them. The protests are an aggressive manifestation of their deep-rooted caste prejudices against Dalits.

Gwalior’s Raja Chouhan epitomises the misplaced youth angst. He was caught on camera openly shooting his revolver at a Dalit crowd on April 2 in Gwalior. His audacious crime has earned him a leader’s role in the anti-reservationists’ protests.

Eight Dalits were killed on that day when police opened fire at the protestors in Bhind, Morena and Gwalior in support of the Bharat Bandh call. It was called to protest dilution in some of the provisions in the SC/ST (PoA) Act by the Supreme Court in March on the contentious ground that they are being misused by Dalits to falsely implicate upper-caste persons.

The police booked Raja Chouhan after a video grab showing him brandishing a pistol went viral and was broadcast on TV channels. He was charged with attempt to commit culpable homicide under section 308 of the IPC. But he was not arrested.

On September 19, an insouciant Chouhan led a motor-rally of Gwalior’s upper-caste protestors who also showed black flags to Morena’s Lok Sabha member Anoop Mishra.

Chouhan was known as a local toughie till the video grab catapulted him as an upper-caste “hero” for shooting at Dalit mob.

Many more like Raja Chouhan have emerged across the state to lead protests against the amendments by the parliament. A majority of them are wannabe politicians who envisage a seat in the state assembly for themselves, riding piggyback on animosity against Dalits.

The upper-caste protests have also thrown up over 40 organisations that denote or connote Brahmin and Rajput connection. One better-known organisation among them is the Karni Sena that had earned nationwide notoriety for spearheading violent protests against the film Padmaavat in April this year.

Till the ‘savarna Bharat bandh’ on September 7, the Shivraj Singh government was a bit dismissive of the upper-caste anger. The government believed the stray protest by motley groups will peter out for want of recognisable organisations and leaders.

The SAPAKS Samaj Party

The most recognisable face on the forefront of the protest is SAPAKS or Samanya, Pichhda Varg, Alpsankhyak Karmachari Sangthan. It is essentially a state government employees/officers union.

In June this year, the SAPAKS leaders transformed the union into a political outfit to be known as SAPAKS Samaj Party or SSP. The party has announced its decision to contest all 230 seats in Madhya Pradesh. It aims to find candidates among people leading anti-reservationist movement. Lure of an SSP ticket has provided an impetus to the protests.

SAPAKS has been in existence for decades. It occasionally made headlines in local media for espousing real or perceived grievances of its upper-caste members.

But one Madhya Pradesh high court judgement in 2016 helped SAPAKS metamorphose itself from an employee union into a major political threat to established parties in the state.

The court had set aside reservation in promotion for SC/ST employees. The Shivraj Singh government challenged the court verdict in the Supreme Court. SAPAKS too appealed in the apex court with the plea to uphold the high court judgement. The matter is still pending in the Supreme Court.

The judgement triggered sharp polarisation of government employees/officers along reserved and general categories. SAPAKS emerged as a champion of the latter.

Meanwhile, the chief minister’s rhetorical assurance to SC/ST employees in one of their meetings caused a major flutter in the government staff. “Shivraj ke rahte koi mai ka lal promotion me arakshan khatm nahi kar sakta (No one can scrap reservation in promotion to SC/ST employees so long as Shivraj Singh is the chief minister).” he had said. Ripples of the chief minister’s boasting began to be felt beyond the employee classes.

Upper-caste people across the state massively trolled Chouhan. They pledged full support to the SAPAKS in its fight against “injustice” to the general class employees.

Even as the SAPAKS’s support base was swelling, the Supreme Court judgment diluting the SC/ST (PoA) Act accentuated the chasm between Dalits and non-Dalits.

Dalit outfits participate in the April 2 Bharat Bandh. Credit: PTI

After the April 2 Bharat Bandh against the Supreme Court decision, the SAPAKS emerged as a rallying force for not only its member-employees but also for other upper-caste people.

Enthused by support, the SAPAKS announced in June the launch of a political party. Its convenor and retired IAS officer Hiralal Trivedi said his party will contest all the 230 seats. Among the SAPAKS leaders are many serving and retired IAS and IPS officers.

Following the parliament amendment to the SC/ST (PoA) Act in August, the SAPAKS Samaj Party has positioned itself on the forefront.

The ground reality about the Act in Madhya Pradesh suggests that organisations like SAPAKS are leveraging the upper-castes’ prejudice against Dalits for selfish motives.

Issue of caste certificates

The police headquarters have no data of fabricated complaints to implicate upper castes. The Act’s opponents have also not paraded a single case in MP about its misuse.

On the contrary, a state government circular, issued on September 4, contradicts the view that the low conviction rate under the Act is due to false complaints by Dalits which don’t stand in the courts. The circular has acknowledged that more than one-third of the cases collapse because complainants fail to provide caste certificates.

To remedy the situation, the circular has asked divisional commissioners, district collectors and sub-divisional revenue officers to make the procedure of obtaining caste certificates easier. The officers have been told not to force applicants to provide documents to prove that they, or their forefathers, were residents of the state before 1950.

Organisations working for SCs and STs admit that obtaining caste certificates is very difficult in the state because officials demand documents and proof that poor, illiterate and marginalised members find very hard to come by.

The Act requires that a chargesheet be filed in a court within 60 days. But in a sizable number of cases, chargesheets are withheld for want of caste certificates that the complainant must mandatorily produce. Additional director general of police (SC/ST) Pragya Richa Srivastava says that at least one-third of the cases fall through because complainants can’t provide caste certificates.

In some cases, the accused are convicted but not under the SC/ST (PoA) Act.

A senior police officer says the hullabaloo over the Act is unfounded. Recalling his experience of working in the Gwalior-Chambal region, he said some false complaints of rape or oppression are received, but most of them are lodged at the behest of upper-caste people who want to settle scores with other upper-caste members.

The sense of entitlement among upper castes is so deeply entrenched that they consider even genuine complaints against them as false, the officer said. For instance, he added, many upper-caste people grit their teeth over complaints against them about hurling caste-denoting invectives at Dalits. “What is illegal about it?” they wonder.

Madhya Pradesh is one of the top states to record incidence of crimes against SCs and STs, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). A total 47,338 cases of crime against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were registered across the country in 2016, Union minister of state for home Hansraj Gangaram Ahir recently told the Lok Sabha, citing the NCRB. Of these cases, Madhya Pradesh accounted for 27.8% followed by Rajasthan (18.2%) and Odisha (10.4%).

The MHA, in its annual report in 2017, had noted how “despite the deterrent provisions made in the PoA Act, increasing atrocities against the members of SCs and STs had been a cause of concern to the government”.

A report by the Human Rights Watch titled ‘Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India’s ‘Untouchables’‘ had noted that “Dalits are frequently the victims of discriminatory treatment in the administration of justice. Prosecutors and judges fail to vigorously and faithfully pursue complaints brought by Dalits, which is evidenced by the high rate of acquittals in such cases.”

Rakesh Dixit is a Bhopal-based senior journalist.