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Nikita Parmar
Advocate, author, political commentator
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The country, where there is so much of hue and cry over a suicide of a ‘Dalit’ student, apparently didn’t notice the recent Amendment to the SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The Amendment was passed in the Lok Sabha on 4 August 2015 and thereafter in Rajya Sabha on 21 December 2015 — both under the current NDA regime. Finally, the Act has come into effect from 26 January 2016.

This Amendment has come as a real Republic Day gift for the Dalits. It includes all acts of atrocity that were left in the original Act. Unlike the original one, which talks only about prevention of atrocities or torture to people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, this legislation goes a step further and includes any act that lowers the self-esteem of a Dalit. The Amendment includes new offences of atrocities like forcible tonsuring of head, shaving off of moustache or similar acts that are derogatory for members of SC and ST, garlanding a Dalit with footwear, denying access to irrigation facilities or forest rights, making members of the said communities dispose of or carry human or animal carcasses, dig graves, using or permitting manual scavenging, dedicating a SC or ST woman as a devadasi, abusing in the name of caste, branding a member of the community as a witch, imposing social or economic boycott, preventing candidates from filing of nomination to contest elections, forcibly stripping a woman of either community, forcing a member of the said castes or tribes to leave a house, village or residence, defiling objects sacred to members of these communities, touching or using words, acts or gestures of a sexual nature against SC and ST people.

By giving special protection rights to the victims, witnesses and their family members and clearly defining the term “wilful negligence” of public servants at all levels, the new law now is in spirit a holistic cover for protection of Dalits and tribal populations against violence, economic and social exclusion and deprivation of their political rights. Historically, the demand of Dalits has been binge a part of the mainstream society and living with dignity. Appreciably, the new law understands the deeper problem of social exclusion of Dalits, which is much common in villages than actual physical violence.

Dalits have a good news coming their way other than a better and more inclusive law. On 27 January, the Central government approved increasing of the authorized share capital of the National Scheduled Castes Financial Development Corporation. The NSFDC funds development activities of persons belonging to SCs; the Cabinet approval has doubled the number of below-poverty-line (BPL) beneficiaries. The message of government is clear — they want to encourage self-employment amongst the Scheduled Castes, which will, in turn, improve the economic conditions of the lot. This way, the scheme of ‘Start-up India’ is truly made inclusive.

With an 80% rise in crime against Dalits in the last decade, one must laud the decision of the government to come up with a stricter Prevention of Atrocities against SC/ST Law. Development of the country is not possible if a section of our society remains downtrodden. The mantra of ‘sab ka saath sab ka vikaas’ is being truly followed by the Narendra Modi government. Apart from this, the BJP-led NDA government has also laid down the foundation stone of the Dr BR Ambedkar Memorial in Mumbai and has purchased Ambedkar’s house in London — a desire of the Dalit community that had stayed unfulfilled under the previous regimes. The plan is to turn the building into international centre for research on Babasaheb’s philosophy.

It is not just the present NDA government that is working actively for the welfare of people of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In 1999, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had brought about some very important Amendments to the Constitution to safeguard Scheduled Caste people’s rights, especially those of promotion in jobs. These Amendments were as follows.

Due to the 81st Amendment, the unfilled vacancies of a year, which are reserved for SCs/STs, and are being carried forward to next year, are to be considered as separate vacancies to be filled up in succeeding years and not to be clubbed together with vacancies of the succeeding year in which it is filled up for determining the ceiling of 50% of the total number of vacancies. It implies that if some reserved vacancies are carried forward to the next year, the next year’s reserved seats will be the vacancies carried forward from the previous year in addition to the 50% of total seats allotted for the current year.

The 82nd Amendment to the Constitution provides that nothing in Article 335 shall prevent the state from making a provision in favour of members of SC and ST for relaxation in qualifying marks in any examination or lowering the standards of evaluation in matters of promotion in government jobs.

The said Article otherwise states:

“Claims of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to services and posts The claims of the members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes shall be taken into consideration, consistently with the maintenance of efficiency of administration, in the making of appointments to services and posts in connection with the affairs of the Union or of a State.”

This means that no government can use the law above as an excuse to state that a certain benefit cannot reach Dalits or tribal people because it is believed to be impinging upon the efficiency of the administration.

The 85th Amendment to the Constitution provides for consequential seniority in the case of promotion by virtue of rule of reservation for the government servants belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. With these constitutional Amendments, the then NDA government also set up a National Constitutional Review Commission.

Many an opposition leader often questions the attitude of BJP towards Dalits and other backwards. Be it RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on reservation system (which was twisted out of context and blown out of proportion), a soldier-turned-minister’s ill-thought remark (on which he issued a clarification), or a suicide of a student of the Hyderabad Central University (whose parents have been saying they are not Dalits), the BJP is accused of suffering from an upper-caste bias. Lost in the din was the fact that it is in the Dalits’ and Adivasis’ own interest that the reservation policy is looked into again to ascertain why seven decades have failed to raise their dignity, lifestyle and income. And when the RSS chief continuously bats for continuation of the quota policy, it does not make front-page or prime-time-news!

In such a scenario, the fact that the government is indisputably taking constructive, concrete steps for the uplift of people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes raises serious questions on the credentials of the critics.

The situation obviously would make an average Indian voter question what is wrong with our parliamentarians. Is it their job to shout slogans against the ruling party or to get laws for the welfare of the people passed? Most importantly, is the intention of the opposition just to show the BJP in bad light, project it as an anti-Dalit party or to actually work for the uplift of Dalits and other backward classes?

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