It’s time to recall Ambedkar’s advice
The Government has filed a review petition against the apex court’s judgement on SC/ST Act. Citizens must abandon the path of violence to put forth their grievances and let the judicial process take its course
The nation observed Ambedkar Jayanti on April 14 around the time when there were disturbances in some parts of the country consequent to a judgement of the Supreme Court regarding the enforcement of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Much of the protests have been triggered by opponents of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who have tried to lay the blame at this party’s door in a bid to generate hostility against it among the Dalits, even as the Narendra Modi Government has filed a review petition in the apex court.
The political twist given to the court’s judgement and the violence on the streets is truly unfortunate because it goes against the firm advice given by BR Ambedkar when the Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution. Once the Constitution is adopted, he said, citizens must abandon the unconstitutional path to put forth their grievances.
In the judgement that has triggered the agitation, the court said that it had noted the working of the Act over the last three decades and it had been “judicially acknowledged” that there are instances of abuse of the Act by vested interests against political opponents in Panchayat, Municipal or other elections to settle private civil disputes arising out of property, monetary disputes, employment disputes and seniority disputes.
Innocent citizens are termed as accused, which is not intended by the legislature. The legislature never intended to use the Atrocities Act as an instrument to blackmail or to wreak personal vengeance.
The apex court said that the under privileged need to be protected against any atrocities to give effect to the Constitutional ideals and the Atrocities Act has been enacted with this objective. “At the same time, the said Act cannot be converted into a charter for exploitation or oppression by any unscrupulous person or by police for extraneous reasons against other citizens, as has been found on several occasions in decisions referred to above. Any harassment of an innocent citizen, irrespective of caste or religion, is against the guarantee of the Constitution. This court must enforce such a guarantee. Law should not result in caste hatred. The Preamble to the Constitution, which is the guiding star for interpretation, incorporates the values of liberty, equality and fraternity”. Also, the Act was “not intended to deter public servants from performing their bona fide duties”.
Following the court’s judgement on March 20, agitators took to the streets and a Bharat Bandh was organised against what they called the “dilution” of the Act. They said, the judgement would completely nullify the main purpose of the Act and actually protect the perpetrators of atrocities against the Dalits. While some questioned the theory that the Act was being misused, others said the premise on which the court had drawn its conclusions was incorrect. There were also the argument that this would completely jeopardise the efforts of the Indian state to protect the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who have faced and continue to face oppression across the country.
The Narendra Modi Government promptly filed for a review of the judgement. It took the stand that offences under this Act were heinous crimes which were committed to humiliate and subjugate SCs and STs. It said that the Government was committed to ensuring the well-being of the Dalits and tribals and that it did not agree with the reasoning of the Supreme Court. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said it was important to note that the Union Government was not a party to the proceedings at all and, therefore, a very comprehensive review petition had been filed. The Government noted that less than 25 per cent of the cases filed under the Act resulted in conviction of accused persons. Therefore, the court’s judgement would only further impede justice for the victims of atrocities.
The Government felt that the accusations hurled at it by its opponents were baseless because it enjoyed the confidence of the Dalits. Electoral studies have shown that the BJP’s share of the Dalit vote jumped from 12 per cent in 2009 to 24 per cent in 2014. Also, the party bagged 66 of the 131 Lok Sabha seats reserved for Dalits and Tribals in the country. While doing so, it had completely wrecked the electoral base of the pro-Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party which did not win a single reserved seat. The Congress also saw erosion of its Dalit base.
Speaking in the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, Ambedkar cautioned the citizens and told them what they had to do if they wished to maintain democracy “not merely in form, but also in fact”. He said, “The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to Constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for Constitutional methods of achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where Constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the grammar of anarchy, and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us”.
Now that the Union Government has filed a strong review petition on their behalf, the Dalits and the tribal communities, which are anguished over the court order, must allow the judicial process to take its course. Any group or community that feels aggrieved about something must remember Ambedkar’s sage counsel. Because, as he has warned, violent methods of protest could imperil democracy.
(The writer is Chairman, Prasar Bharati)
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