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Why India’s Supreme Court Ruling Sparked Deadly Protests Across the Country

 4 min read / 

The states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh turned into arenas for widespread violence on Monday the 2nd of April, as initially peaceful protests turned deadly in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Thousands of Dalits, members of India’s lowest caste (also known as the “untouchables”) took to the streets, protesting the court’s weakening protections put in place for their marginalised community. At least ten people have been killed in the clashes.

Caste-Based Discrimination in India

India has outlawed caste-based discrimination since 1950, and the constitution recognises such discrimination as a crime, punishable by up to a year in prison. However, it remains widespread to the extent that it is considered as ‘endemic’ in the country. Dalits have been marginalised for centuries, and they have traditionally been forced to perform jobs deemed menial by other castes. Moreover, they were denied entry to temples and forbidden from studying religious texts, as well as attending the same schools as members of upper castes. According to official statistics released last November, by Amnesty International, more than 40,000 crimes against Scheduled Castes were reported in 2016. The findings of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) support this statistic. The NCRB has pointed to a rise in crime against Dalits in recent years. Higher caste members have attacked Dalits in several notable incidents, in retaliation for Dalits accessing public and social spaces which the attackers perceived as cases of caste transgression.

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act

In 1989, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act came into force under Rajiv Gandhi, with the objective of preventing crimes against lower castes and tribes in India. In 2015, the law was further amended to expand the list of charges and crimes considered as discriminatory. The act allowed for anyone being accused of caste-related crimes to be immediately arrested, with bail options being significantly limited in certain instances.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

On the 20th of March, India’s Supreme Court ruled that due to the Act being frequently misused (it pointed to the fact that 15% of the complaints filed in 2015 under the Act were false) and to prevent misuse of the law, automatic arrests and registration of criminal cases would be halted.  A new preliminary procedure was introduced, to be undertaken by police and further action to be taken only after supervisors signed off the same inquiry. Dalit groups claim that the already low conviction rates will be subject to additional drops following the diluting measures. India’s law and justice minister Ravi Shankar Prasad declared that the Federal Government was calling for a reconsideration of the Court’s ruling, as it did not agree with its reasoning.

Assembly Elections on the Horizon

These protests raise further concerns within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Karnataka, a state in south-west India, assembly elections are taking place on the 12th of May and Dalits represent an estimated 23% of the electorate. India’s third largest party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), is set to benefit from the protests, which it is expected to leverage to undo the BJP’s efforts to rebrand itself as something other than an upper-caste party. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s background as a member of an Other Backward Caste, given protection similarly to Scheduled Castes but not to as high a degree, has helped in changing the BJP. India’s traditional largest party, the Indian National Congress (INC) is expected to benefit from the unrest, already attempting to portray the BJP as an anti-Dalit party in every political rally. Following the spread of protests, Rahul Gandhi, INC’s leader, tweeted:

Thousands of my Dalit brothers and sisters have come out on the streets to demand protection of their rights from the (Narendra) Modi government. We (Congress and I) salute them

and

Keeping Dalits at the lowest rung of Indian society is in the DNA of the RSS[Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a volunteer organsation whose political wing is the BJP]/BJP. Whoever dares challenge this position is suppressed with violence.

Whether the Supreme Court will be willing to take a step back is unclear. It is clear, however, that caste discrimination persists within the country and that caste identity can play an influential role in shaping voting preferences in India. Karnataka assembly elections will be a crucial test for the BJP to evaluate their efforts at demolishing their “upper-caste party” reputation. These elections, more importantly, will demonstrate to how great an extent social identity will be the driver for the future political development of India.

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