The police registering of an offence against Dr. TP Lahane, the dean of JJ Hospital, under the Prevention of Atrocities (scheduled castes and scheduled tribes) Act 1989, has once again turned the spotlight on this legislation.
Dr Lahane is accused of making 'casteist' slur against an on-contract sweeper. A serious offence under the legislation that aims to curb atrocities, including verbal abuse, against SCs and STs. However, members of the upper caste allege that the Act is being misused.
However, noted Dalit intellectual and Rajya Sabha MP, Dr Bhalchandra Mungekar, said: "This law is being misunderstood. In fact, it is not being implemented in letter and spirit. The conviction rate is very low."
He said the police often either discourage SC/STs from filing complaints under this Act or suppress the cases altogether.
Dr A Ramaiya of Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS), who has a PhD on the subject, said the low conviction rate was because the police were prejudiced. "The force is dominated by the upper castes. Even, when there is genuine case, the lower caste people will not dare to file a case as they have to depend on the upper castes for everything," he said.
Shailesh Darolkar, assistant professor at the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policies, said the allegations of misuse were baseless. "The implementation of this law depends on the socio-economic conditions in the area where an offence is committed. The village landlord and money lenders deprive the complainant of all resources. Tremendous pressure is put on the victim by casteist elements to withdraw his/her complaint," said Darolkar.
Actually, the SC/ST have been misused by the upper caste to settle internal scores. There have been cases where a member of an upper caste instigates an SC/ST member to file a bogus case of atrocity against another upper caste person. "In Marathwada, the fight is between Maratha/Wanjara and Lingyat while in western Maharashtra, it is among the Marathas," said Darolkar.
He said, most of such cases had been registered in Marathwada. "The registration rate in Konkan is negligible as in Konkan the SC/STs are not assertive," said Darolkar.
However, another activist, who did not wish to be identified, said the Act was being misused grossly. "Local Dalit politician provokes his people to file false cases against the upper caste," he said.