South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders, is concerned by an Indian Supreme Court ruling which, according to Dalit activists and organisations, dilutes elements of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, which was designed to promote social justice for oppressed castes.
Oppressed castes across India have responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling with mass protests. Though largely peaceful, these protest have turned violent in many states, leading to at least ten deaths, hundreds of arrests, and thousands of injuries at the time of writing this statement.
SAHR unequivocally condemns the attacks on oppressed caste protesters and leaders by state actors as well as vigilante groups. SAHR notes that the majority of violence by and against protesters has been in BJP ruled states where caste tensions appear to be highest.
According to a 2011 census, Scheduled Castes and Tribes make up around 25% of India’s population. Yet many have suffered centuries of systemic oppression, being deprived of basic rights such as education, healthcare, jobs, land, food and water, as well as being subject to brutal forms of violence such as the public beating of Dalits in Una town, Gujarat.
Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicate that the rate of crimes against Dalits is on the rise, while Dalit organisations claim that the conviction rate for such crimes is declining. News agencies have reported that by the end of 2016, about 90% of roughly 145,000 cases involving Dalits were still awaiting trial.
Dalit groups consider the dilution of the SC/ST Act as the latest structural attack on the oppressed caste community, following recent upper caste campaigns to challenge reservations for scheduled castes and tribes.
While SAHR commends the Indian government for filing a review petition in response to popular Dalit protest, however it is regrettable that such a move has come only after the tragic loss of life and assaults on the oppressed caste community and its leaders.
SAHR urges the Indian government to immediately investigate reports of attacks on Dalits by state actors and vigilante groups. The perpetrators of such caste-based violence must be indicted and prosecuted as per the law. Furthermore, the ruling BJP must act decisively to uphold the rights and freedoms guaranteed to scheduled castes and tribes by the Indian constitution – a document whose principal architect was Dalit social reformer B. R. Ambedkar.
On behalf of the members of South Asians for Human Rights