On September 28, the Tamil Nadu government admitted in the Madras High Court that it has not conducted a single SC/ST vigilance and monitoring committee meeting for seven years. It is mandatory for the committee headed by the chief minister to meet twice a year to ensure the SC/ST Act is implemented properly in the state.
At a time when the rape of a 19-year-old Dalit girl, her death and the way her family was treated during her cremation in Uttar Pradesh has sent shock wave across the country, a state’s admission of its lackadaisical approach to the Act offers a grim reminder of how Dalits are treated in this country.
In Tamil Nadu, caste atrocities have manifested in various forms — the two tumbler system, not allowing people of certain castes inside temples, honour killings, not providing community certificates and scholarships, etc. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that while atrocities against Dalits have been increasing, the conviction rate in such crimes has been very low.
The purpose of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, which was passed by the Centre in 1989, was to prevent such atrocities, crimes and discrimination. In 1995, the rules to implement the Act were passed. The law was amended in 2015. According to the rules, a 25-member committee should be formed under the chief minister in each state and it should conduct a meeting once in six months to review the status of cases and take necessary steps to prevent caste atrocities.
But, in response to a public interest litigation, the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department in the Tamil Nadu government has said that the vigilance committee has not met even once between June 25, 2013, and September 8, 2020.
In fact, according to the response to an RTI application filed in 2019 by the Madurai-based Evidence, an organisation working towards Dalit rights, the committee met only thrice in the 23 years between 1995 and 2018.
“Both the DMK and the AIADMK are equally guilty of not conducting the meeting of the committee as mandated. After many petitions and protests, the then chief minister M Karunanidhi government conducted the first meeting of the committee in the state on November 11, 2010. However, that meeting was not headed by the chief minister, as is required, but by the deputy chief minister MK Stalin,” said Punitha Pandian, a Dalit activist and editor of the magazine, ‘Dalit Murasu’.
The second meeting was held on June 6, 2012 under the chairmanship of then state law minister SP Velumani. The last meeting was held on June 25, 2013, and was headed by the then chief minister J Jayalalithaa.
“The fourth meeting was held on September 8 this year because the SC/ST Act celebrated 30 years on September 11. To mark three decades of the Act’s existence, many Dalit organisations held conferences, demonstrations, filed RTIs and litigations, etc. The pressure put by all these efforts made the state government conduct the meeting. But it is not known whether the chief minister chaired the meeting or what measures were taken to prevent atrocities. The meeting was not even reported in media,” alleged I Pandian, founder, Witness For Justice, a Dalit rights advocacy.
It is not just in Tamil Nadu, this is the case across the country in almost all states. Officials don’t have complete knowledge of the Act, which mandates not just half-yearly meetings but also a state survey every year on atrocities, monthly police status reports on such cases, etc. But these are hardly followed, if at all, said Pandian.
“However, even if such meetings take place regularly, atrocities will not come down,” said Karuppaiah, general secretary of Dalit Liberation Movement. “That is because the ‘Sanatana politics’ we see today will try to break the unity among the Dalits and Backward Classes. Unless the Dalit organisations work together efficiently, no major good will happen to the oppressed,” he said.
But the unity required to fight for a common cause seems to be lacking as Dalit organisations and parties the community fight with each other. For instance, the sub-quota reservation given to Arunthathiyars is has not gone well with two other Dalit groups, namely Pallars and Paraiyars. The Dalit party, Vidutgalai Chirurhaigal Katchi, has been trying to give the Paraiyar community the ‘Adi Dravidar’ identity. But, this effort is criticised by the Pallars and Arunthathiyars. Meanwhile, some sections of Pallars have been demanding that they should not be called as a scheduled caste as it results in stigma. They, however, want the reservations and benefits for SCs to remain, a stance that is opposed by Paraiyars and Arunthathiyars.
“The SC/ST Act has the words ‘Prevention of Atrocities’, but it has not been able to prevent the atrocities,” said Punitha Pandian. “It only provides compensation to the victims. It has not been effective because the Act is implemented by caste Hindus who are in the power. Dr Ambedkar had said that such laws will remain only on paper till the Hindus agree with the Constitution, which says everyone is equal,” Pandian said. “Now, differences among the Dalits themselves will create more barriers to ensuring Dalit rights.”
The Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department has said it has not conducted the vigilance meetings due to administrative reasons. The court has directed the state to ensure that the meeting is conducted in January and July every year. State government officials were unavailable for comment.