By Sanjeev Sabhlok, IAS (RR 1982, resigned), senior leader of Swarna Bharat Party
The social atmosphere in Maharashtra is strained. Protests have arisen partly because of the divisive consequences of the Atrocities Act.
I will not go into details of all the issues specific to Maharashtra here. Instead, I will look at a key issue that is causing the strain, namely, the nature and design of the Atrocities Act. While the intent of the Act is admirable, there are numerous basic problems with the law. We should step back for a moment and look at the Act objectively from the point of whether its purpose is best achieved in this way, whether it is helpful in eliminating caste prejudices, and whether it is compatible with the principles in Ambedkar’s Constitution.
Swarna Bharat Party (SBP) is deeply concerned about ongoing atrocities against the Dalits. We believe the government must protect life and liberty. Any atrocity against anyone in India must be severely punished. We also oppose all forms of social oppression. India can never be great if nearly half of India’s population remains oppressed by the other half. Our policies are designed to eliminate all social and economic disadvantage.
And yet, we too must object to elements of this Act as it currently stands.
First, we should pause for a moment to ask: What exactly is the kind of India that we want? Do we want to continue with the caste system? Do we want a divided India?
Someone wrote to me: “Discrimination, exploitation, oppression, suppression and many similar forms have their root in Brahminism”. I personally couldn’t agree more with Dr. Ambedkar when he said: “How can anybody who is not a congenital idiot accept Chaturvarna as the ideal form of society?” Most founding leaders of our party are against caste. I consider Dr. Ambedkar to be one of the greatest leaders India had in the past two thousand years and have – for many years now – operated a Facebook page in his honour.
But this is not about one’s personal views or preferences about caste or religion. As a party wedded to the Constitution of India, we firmly believe in the separation of the state and religion. We do not have a positon on any religious issue, such as caste.
But this point about the Atrocities Act is not about religion or caste. The point is that we can’t think in generalities about any issue, including caste. Ultimately, everything boils down to individual action. Not all “Brahmins” discriminate or oppress (I use quotation marks since I personally don’t recognise anyone’s “caste”. And not all SC/ST persons are saints.
The liberal believes that everything begins and ends with the individual. There is no scope to generalise about the “character” of any “group” of individuals. This means there is no scope to continue to use caste terms to stereotype and generalise about people’s behaviour. Brahminism is bad but so is Dalitism or any attempt to draw attention to these false categories.
Someone wrote to me that the government must abolish the caste system. This was also a call made in the Constituent Assembly while drafting India’s Constitution. But the Constituent Assembly rejected this demand. It is up to us, as individuals, not to the government (our servant) to abolish caste. I have abolished caste in my personal life by rejecting it outright. I don’t know, nor want to ask anyone’s caste. When we stop recognising caste, it will die a natural death.
Caste only exists because some of us recognise it. The moment you derecognise caste, it is gone. And no government can do that for you, for this is a matter of personal action.
The funny thing is that the same person who wants the government to abolish caste also supports the Atrocities Act which embeds caste in our daily language and divides the nation into two. I ask you whether it is the job of government to recognise caste, leave alone making laws that apply to one caste or other.
I must note that as a party, we are supportive of evidence-based analysis that underpins the current transient Constitutional welfare provisions for the scheduled castes and tribes. But the broader principle remains. How can we break down the caste system if we keep making laws that talk about caste? If we want to break down the caste system we need to stop dividing people on the basis of caste.
In Dr. Ambedkar’s mind, democracy is “first, an attitude of mind, an attitude of respect and equality towards their fellows. The second is a social organization free from rigid social barriers”. These are the ideas a liberal believes in. These are the ideas that SBP, India’s only liberal party, stands for.
The Preamble of India assures us “EQUALITY of status and of opportunity”. Article 14 assures us that “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”. Article 17 speaks about the eradication of the untouchability and provides stringent actions against “any person” of “any community” practicing untouchability or the offenses fall under untouchability. It is worth noting that this Article does not talk about caste or religion.
Unfortunately, the welfare provisions in the Constitution do not deal with the underlying causes of the backwardness of the deprived classes. These causes can only be addressed by other means. We need to make available world-best education to the poorest of the poor so they can compete in the free market. The free market cares for efficiency and quality of services. It doesn’t care for caste. Only the ability to compete in the free market can break the shackles of caste.
Second, we should recognise that government policies over the past many decades have failed to provide security, justice or equal opportunity to the deprived classes. Despite the Atrocities Act coming into force since 1989, atrocities against Dalits show no sign of coming to an end. In fact, two amendments in the Atrocities law have made it even more stringent, but the effect on atrocities has been minimal. Saffron cow protectors are continuing to commit atrocities against Dalits unchecked. They know that the law enforcement machinery is totally defunct and they will never be punished.
I hope it is clear that it is not due to a shortage of laws that violence takes place against the Dalits. It is due to the abject failure of the government to do its job. Our government runs duty free shops, hotels, airlines and banks. It does not want to fund or make accountable the police and judiciary. With a backlog of crores of pending cases, perpetrators of crime remain scot free. We have a socialist model of governance, in which the government wants to reach commanding heights and run businesses. It does not have any interest in security, justice and law and order.
India needs to abandon socialist policies and get our governments to do their core functions – of police and justice. SBP has written an Open Letter to the Prime Minister demanding that funds be doubled for the police and increased ten times for the judiciary. But additional funding alone will not help. We need accountability. Details on how to do this are provided in SBP’s manifesto. We need the government to fund elections on a per vote basis. We need to abolish tenure for senior government jobs. Only the policies of liberalism can break their bondage of the deprived classes.
Third, an even more fundamental reason for the continuation of the caste system is that the government has totally failed to provide good education to the deprived sections of society. In fact, it has comprehensively failed to provide good education to anyone. On this issue, as well, only SBP knows how to make world-best education available to the poorest of the poor. When the Dalits become highly educated, there will be no question of any atrocities on them.
Dr Ambedkar became what he did because of the education that he was fortunate enough to receive, despite the huge oppression he faced. No government or political party wants to provide good education to the Dalits because only by keeping them illiterate can they practice their vote bank politics.
Fourth, we must remember that political parties use things like the Atrocities Act as a pretend “solution”, basically to get votes. Being largely illiterate, Dalits are easily swayed by such trinkets that will apparently address their problems. This Act is mainly a political tool and does nothing to address any underlying problem facing the Dalits.
The Rajiv Gandhi government passed the Act in 1989 on the wake of the general elections. The amendment of 2014 was made around the time of the general elections. The Modi government then made further amendments in 2016, perhaps eyeing the forthcoming elections in UP.
SBP asks the Dalits to choose very clearly: do they want meaningless laws that will never fix their problems, or do they want real solutions?
With these general prefatory comments out of the way, let me now explain why – apart from being divisive and ineffective – the Atrocities Act is also unconstitutional. It is not the kind of thing anyone should support.
Some people have written to me that a government has a right to interpret the Constitution in any way it wishes to create laws to protect certain oppressed groups. Actually, that is not the way our Constitution, drafted by Dr. Ambedkar, operates.
Our Constitution has a basic structure of liberty and equality. And if one word can be used to characterise Dr Ambedkar’s worldview, it would be that he was a liberal. During the drafting of India’s Constitution he vigorously fought against any dilution of liberal principles. For instance he opposed the inclusion of the word “socialist” in the Preamble.
Now let us examine the precise mechanism by which the Constitution addresses the disability of various oppressed groups. All the special provisions in the Constitution for the members of the SC/ST community (Articles 15(4) and (5), 16 (4)(a), 46, 330, 332, 334, and 335) apply (without exception) to the social and economic welfare and advancement of these deprived communities. There is not a single Constitutional provision for any crime that distinguishes between Indians on the basis of their caste. And as noted earlier, even Article 17, which creates the offence of “untouchability”, does not restrict its application only to the SC/ST communities.
There are only two categories of Indian citizens: women and children, to protect whom any law (including any special criminal law) can be made. But SC/ST are not in that category. Each word and phrase in the Constitution was very extensively discussed and debated by the Advisory Committee on minorities and fundamental rights. There are good reasons for not including SC/ST under Article 15(3) along with women and children. Dr. Ambedkar explained that the object of the fundamental rights was “that every citizen must be in a position to claim these rights”.
If we are interested in eliminating the caste system, we must not allow different criminal laws based on caste. Our party is convinced that the Atrocities Act violates the basic principles laid down in the Constitution and we are preparing a writ petition to ensure that such unconstitutional acts do not continue on the statute book.
Our party is very clear, as well, that the crimes listed in the Atrocities Act must be investigated and punished. This is not about reducing the protections for the SC/ST communities even by the slightest amount. This is about ensuring that we do things in India that are consistent with equality, liberty and justice for all. Everyone should be punished for atrocities. All appropriate crimes listed in the Atrocities Act should be included in the Indian Penal Code after a review.
In summary, the points I have made are that:
a) Atrocities against SC/ST can only be stopped by radical improvement of the police and justice system, not by a proliferation of laws.
b) The caste system can only end by delivering world-class education to the children of the poorest of the poor, not by creating laws based on caste.
c) Criminal laws must be caste-blind. If he was alive today, Dr Ambedkar would have been deeply disappointed by attempts to truncate fundamental rights that he wanted for all citizens.
We need to liberate India from the evil of socialist policies. Only liberalism can create prosperity. Liberalism will also rid India of caste-based oppression. Caste-based crimes are ultimately rooted in poverty and illiteracy. We want everyone to be well-educated and capable enough to think for themselves. I also encourage – in my personal capacity – to reject caste. If we refuse to recognise caste, it will die on its own.
Let us unite to reform India’s system to ensure security, justice and education. And let us all, at all times, be equal under the law. Together, working hand in hand, we will create a great India.