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Protecting the Rights of Dalits and Adivasis

In addition to policies our country also has specific laws that guard against the discrimination and exploitation of marginalised communities.

The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 has come to the rescue of marginalised groups when they were treated badly by the majority communities.

Let us look into the case of Rathnam
  • Rathnam, a Dalit, belongs to the Jakmalgur village. He is 20 years old and is studying Engineering in a nearby College.
  • The Jakmalgur Village celebrates a grand festival once in 5 years. During this festival the local deity is honoured and priests from 20 neighbouring villages come to the village.
  • The ceremony begins with a member of the Dalit community washing the feet of all the priests and then bathing in the water used for this. But the Dalits were not allowed to enter the temple.
  • Rathnam’s fore fathers have been performing this task and now it was the turn of Rathnam to do it.
  • Rathnam refused to wash the feet of the priest as he did not have faith in the practice.
  • Rathnam’s refusal angered the majority caste. His family was shunned by the community. His hut was set on fire. The other Dalits did not support him as they were dependent on the upper castes for their livelihood.
  • Rathnam approached the nearby Police station and filed a case under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
  • Action was taken by the government and the ritual of washing the feet of the priests was called off.
  • Yet Rathnam’s family was forced to move out of the village as they continued to be ostracised by the powerful castes in the village.

This case study reveals 2 important facts- one, the Dalits are still treated disrespectfully; two, the Dalits can turn to the government for justice against this discrimination.

The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, was framed in response to demands made by Dalits and others groups.
They wanted the government to stop the ill treatment and humiliation Dalits and tribal groups face everyday.

Now let us look at a few more incidences were the Dalits asserted themselves and sort the help of law to fight discrimination

  • In the late 1970s and 1980s in parts of South India the Dalits asserted themselves by refusing to perform their so-called caste duties and insisted on being treated equally.

  • Adivasi people successfully organised themselves and demanded equal rights and for their land and resources to be returned to them.

  • Dalit groups demanded new laws that would list the various sorts of violence against Dalits and prescribe stringent punishment for those who indulge in them.

    The Government of India took into consideration all the demands of the Dalits and laws were passed to safeguard them.

  • As demanded the Act contains a very long list of crimes, some of which are too horrible even to think.

  • The Act not only describes terrible crimes, but also lets people know what dreadful deeds human beings are capable of. These laws seek to both punish as well as influence the way we think and act.

The Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989 distinguishes several levels of crimes:

  • Modes of humiliation

  • Force a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe to drink or eat any inedible or obnoxious substance

  • Forcibly removes clothes from the person of a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or parades him or her naked or with painted face or body or commits any similar act which is derogatory to human dignity

  • Actions that deprive Dalits and Adivasis of their possessions

  • wrongfully occupies or cultivates any land owned by, or allotted to, … a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or gets the land allotted to him transferred

  • Crimes against Dalit and tribal women

  • Assaults or uses force on any woman belonging to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe with intent to dishonour her

Though the Dalits and other marginalized groups asserted themselves now and then they had to face the anger of powerful social groups and were subject to a great deal of violence.


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