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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 4, January 14, 2023

Caste Atrocities and Social Justice in India | Rachna Kumari Prasad

Saturday 14 January 2023


Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind. The idea of affirmative action and its implementation in post-colonial India as reservation policy and various policies and programmes have not been sufficient enough to accommodate the normative and ethical concerns of egalitarianism and social justice. —B R Ambedkar

EQUALITY AND NON-DISCRIMINATION is an important value which brings development, empowerment, enlightenment and social justice in society. Granville Austin has rightly said that without social equality, economic and political equality is meaningless. It is within this backdrop that caste-based atrocities and social discrimination needs to be understood in post-colonial and post-global India.

No doubt we have a plethora of constitutional provisions such as Article 17, 21, 39(a), (b), 45, Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and several other laws. Yet, in democratic India, one finds one’s self helpless in addressing caste-based crimes, offences and violence. In contemporary India, Dalits have been continuously facing caste-based atrocities. Dalits exclusion from mainstream society, marginalisation, disempowerment and deprivation is an area of grave concern. Their voice of dissent, though being allowed to be heard occasionally, is hardly ever able to deliver social justice.

Why is it that society is insensitive and continues its historical discrimination even in changing times?

Is it the failure of the state or its civil society? Or is it an individual’s inability to resolve problems attached to such blatant caste discrimination? Mental trauma, Social demotion, dishonor, disrespect, identity crisis and mental trauma, often accompanied by physical trauma remains the major concerns related to Dalits even today.

How many Rohith Vemula, Payal Tadvi and others will be sacrificed before we are able to address social justice substantively? Nation building and empowerment of marginalised sections still remains to be incorporated in a more substantive way in Indian society. Politicisation of acts, laws, social issues play an important role in diluting the main objective of social justice. It, therefore, becomes important to bring caste and caste-based violence above party lines. Whenever there is positive intervention by the state and its agencies, we need to re-think and re-evaluate our policies and programmes to lift it up from just being procedural, formal, and constitutional and become a little bit more substantive, informal and humane.

Gandhian Dream of Social Justice

At the core of our Constitution lies the essence of a Gandhian dream in the form of social justice and social democracy. Austin has described the Indian constitution as, ‘first and foremost a social document’ (Sankaran, 2000). He further explains that, the majority of India’s constitutional provisions are either directly arrived at furthering the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievement. The very same point was elaborated in eloquent terms by Ambedkar and Nehru even before the country became free from colonial rule. In reality, these dreams still remain just dreams.

The basic objective of the PCR Act, 1976, sought to give effect to the constitutional provision regarding enforcement of the civil rights for the downtrodden. However, the dimension of their exploitation and perpetration of atrocities on them by upper castes was to be dealt with under the normal penal laws. Cases continued to occur involving brutal incidents, resulting in deprivation of life and property of socially oppressed persons. There were numerous incidents involving varied forms of atrocities on the downtrodden i.e. Scheduled Castes & Tribes, reflecting a highly perverted social behaviour — like forcing people of lower castes to drink or eat inedible substances like human excreta, dumping carcasses or other waste matter in their premises, polluting drinking water sources used by them and implicating them in false cases, etc. The Acts of atrocity on Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes have taken myriad forms but in the absence of any firm or legal definition of the term ‘atrocity’, the government did not have and does not still have any figures on the extent of atrocities that go on.

Occasionally, public concern for atrocities on Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes have been aired in the parliament, which says it wants to know what measures have been taken to prevent the occurrence of such ‘atrocities’. (Since the expression had not been defined, there was no uniformity in the criteria followed by the different State governments for furnishing information about the cases on atrocities.)

On 10 March 1980, the union home minister addressed a letter to the governors and the chief ministers on prevention of atrocities on SC/ST and urged the State governments to activate the State machinery to take initiative and mete out a fair deal to the Scheduled Castes and find a permanent solution by putting an end to the basic causes of dispute that had led to the Commission on Atrocities. (Report SC/ST, 1992: 93.)

All the measures taken were found to be ineffective in curbing the incidents of atrocities on SC/STs and finally a law was enacted under the title of, ‘The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989’, which for the first time legally defined ‘atrocity’ on SC/ST. The term atrocity had not been defined till 1989 in the law and, therefore, the governments have been using the expression ‘crimes’ against the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Importance of the Act

The Act (hereinafter referred to as the POA) provides enhanced punishment for certain offences for which punishment existed under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and other laws which, however, did not provide sufficient deterrence. An important feature of the Act was to provide for punishment for willful neglect of duty under the Act by a public servant belonging to castes or communities other than SC/STs. It spelt out minimum punishments for subsequent convictions. A provision was also included regarding externment from the Scheduled area, of a person who was found to be likely to commit an offence under the Act. Provision for setting up of special courts was made mandatory along with that of a special public prosecutor.

Definition of Atrocities

‘Atrocities’ are defined as specific forms of violence committed collectively or by individuals on the weaker sections in general and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in different parts of the country. Such violence manifests both in the social and physical forms. From the psychological point of view, it may be part of an aggressive personality and behavior pattern. The target of such atrocities are those who have traditionally been degraded and deprived as a group or as individuals and who try to find a place other than that prescribed to them in the social structure (Sikligar, 2002:4).

The Scheduled Caste population is the prime target of atrocities due to caste hierarchy where Scheduled Castes have been regarded as a downtrodden caste. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes comprise about 16.6% and 8.6%, respectively, of India’s population (according to the 2011 census ). The Scheduled Tribes mostly inhabit hilly and inaccessible forest areas. They do not suffer from the stigma of untouchability and the social disabilities arising out of it. The atrocities on them are alleged to have been mostly committed by the police and local landlords. Land alienation, indebtedness, forest policy restricting the interests of the tribals in forests, changing excise police against the tribals, non-payment of minimum wages, bonded labour, are some of the main atrocities committed on them (Ibid.)

Atrocities related to Wage, Bondage 

Scheduled Castes and Tribes face different forms of atrocities in their day-to-day socio-economic and political life. There are many cases of atrocities, which arise from agricultural labourers demanding minimum wages, which are very low.

Land plays significant role in molding lives as a livelihood source of income and the main causes of atrocities are disputes and conflicts arising from land use. This demand for land has triggered off some of the atrocities, even though what they demand is according to the law. Land grabbing by upper castes, boundary disputes of the land, land-tenant-wage related conflicts etc also comes under such atrocities. The record of implementing land reforms in tribal areas is very poor in many States.

Civic Facilities and Atrocities

Accessibility to public places for Dalits is mostly denied. It has its root cause in the subcontinent’s culture. For thousands of the years they are subjected to atrocities. Because of the practice of untouchability, traditionally they have been denied access to public wells, entry to hotels, temples, cinema halls, not allowed marriage ceremony to walk from the road, not allowed to wear chappals and if they have asked for such rights — the mere seeking of such rights has led to atrocities and conflict.

Social Segregation

Atrocities, social boycott and discrimination have led to social segregation of Dalits. With more and more economic and political empowerment, Dalits are today more conscious and more aware of their long-term rights and demands. This social segregation causes people to compromise or to indulge in conflict, as a result outburst of violence and tension prevail. Dalits are the greatest victims of this social segregation.

Self-respect and Self-assertion

Their demand for equality in different spheres like socio, political, economic has made their demand for self-respect loud. This has raised the question of their dignity. Many examples are available from Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country, where such demand for self-respect is on going.

Significance of the Act: This part deals with the importance and the performance of the Act and analyses how far it has been able to ventilate the grievances of the SC/ST and it will also try to analyze the situation after the act came into existence through the help of the data from different studies and reports.

How far is this Act an Improvement over the Act of 1976?

The POA Act is a tacit acknowledgement by the government that caste relations are defined by violence, both incidental and systemic, unlike its predecessor, the 1976 Civil Rights Act, which only concerned itself with superficial humiliations such as verbal abuse of the lower castes. The POA gives Dalits vital ammunition in the form of legal redress for this violence perpetrated against them. The Act attempts to curb and punish violence against Dalits through three broad means:

First, it identifies what actually constitutes ‘atrocities’. These include both particular incidents of harm and humiliation such as the forced consumption of noxious substances, as well as the systemic violence faced by many Dalits, especially in the rural areas. Such systemic violence includes forced labour, denial of access to water and other civic amenities, and sexual abuse of Dalit women.

Secondly, the Act calls upon all the States to convert existing session’s courts in each district into a special court to try case registered under the POA.And finally, the Act creates provisions for States to declare areas with high levels of caste violence to be ‘atrocity-prone’ and to appoint qualified officers to monitor and maintain law and order.

The Act in Practice

Table 1

Total Convictions and Acquittals by Courts under the PCR Act

Year % of convictions % of acquittals Acquittals ratio
1977 27.4 72.6 1:3
1978 19.4 80.3 1:4
1979 22.9 77.1 1:3
1980 30.7 6.3 1:2
1981 17.5 82.5 1:5
1982 10.9 89.1 1:8
1983 N.A - -
1984 14.2 86.8 1:6
1985 12.2 87.8 1:7
1986 19.6 80.4 1:4
1987 15.4 84.6 1:7
1988 12.8 87.2 1:7
1989 21.7 78.3 1:4
1990 12.3 87.7 1:7

Source: ‘Dalits and the State’ (ed.) by Ghanshyam Shah (2002)

This table shows that not only has the proportion of convictions never exceeded half of the acquittals but compared to the earlier years, say 1977 to 1980, the proportion of convictions has flagged and fallen in subsequent years (1983-84).

Table 2

Untouchability in Practice

Cases Registered, between the years 1955-1997

Year Total number of cases registered Year Total number of cases registered
1955 180 1973 2,456
1956 693 1974 1,980
1957 491 1975 3,528
1958 559 1976 5,108
1959 481 1977 3,425
1960 275 1978 4,729
1961 489 1979 4,911
1962 389 1980 4,085
1963 393 1981 4,087
1964 371 1982 4,087
1965 366 1983 3,949
1966 488 1984 3,925
1967 353 1985 3,332
1968  214 1993 2,531
1969  329 1994 1,731
1970  364 1995 1,528
1971  526 1996 1,417
1972 1515 1997 1,157

Source: For 1955-1985, Annual Reports of Commissioner for SC/ST; 1993-1997, Commission for SC/ST, Delhi.

From the year 1955-1971 the cases that are registered are not many, but from the year 1972 there is a vast increase in the total cases which indicates that violence on Dalits is on the rise and in order to prevent it, special provisions are essential. The tables show that from the year 1972 to 1985, the crime rate increased over the years and the need for special provisions was urgent. With the enactment of the POA, after 1989, there has been marginal decrease in the occurrence of crimes against Dalits. Civil society and law enforcement feel, it is because of the fear of punishment enshrined in POA that crimes against Dalits are within limits.

Table 3

Nature of the Crime against SC/ST

Source: National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Third Report 1994&95 & 1995-96 Volume I

The above table reveals that the incidents of crimes against SCs demonstrate a sinusoidal curve while against STs, the crime graph follows a continuous increasing linear trend from 1992 to the year 1995. The table further reveals that extent of crimes and atrocities on Scheduled Castes are much larger than those on Scheduled Tribes. The criteria for identifying a community as SC are social, educational and economic backwardness due to practice of untouchability and the criteria for ST is backwardness due to isolation from rest of the country. This shows that the practice of untouchability and caste hatred is still prevalent (see also Prasad 2013) in twenty-first century India.

The report on the ‘Status of Implementation of SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 and rules 1995’ reveals that there has been substantial increase in cases of violence against SCs and STs and clearly reporting has increased. The crime rate against SCs has increased from 2.6 per cent in 2007 to 2.8 per cent in 2010, this report says. In the same year, Rajasthan reported the highest rates of caste crimes (7.4%). However, we have no real time data and this study is based on a decade old census and decade old reports. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data of more recent years show dramatic increase in numbers, with reporting to the media much more than to any Commission.

Table 4

Cases increased from 2010-2014 across the country

Year 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
SC 32,569 33,652 33,592 39,346 40,300
ST 5,880 5,749 5,920 6,768 6,824
Total 38,449 39,401 39,512 46,114 47,124

Source: National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs.

False Cases 

The National Crime Records Bureau has underlined that more than 5,000 false cases came up in the year 2016. It was further recorded that the police labeled a particular case as ‘false’ and did not do further investigation. Such labeling of cases as ‘false’ shows the biases of the police force in the country, which weakens the implementation of the Act.

Lack of Special Courts

Another issue in the Act is the challenge of special courts and police stations. The POA talks about Special Courts in every State but several States have designated usual sessions courts as SC/ST courts. Only fourteen States have set up exclusive courts in 44 per cent of the districts, according to the 2016 report of the Union Social Justice Ministry. The lack of exclusive courts adds to the pendency of cases that stood at 129,000 at the end of 2016, according to NCRB Data.

In reality, the POA has failed to provide substantial and meaningful justice as many horrible cases are still pending, like in the Kumher carnage, Bathani Tola violence, Laxmanpur-Bathe incident, the Gohana violence, the Khairlanji murders and the list goes on, with new ones added year on year.

The problem of atrocities on deprived communities such as SC/STs is both structural and systemic. The Act should be reviewed and the effective provisions under it should not be diluted, like the attempt that was made in the 2018 Supreme Court judgement. The suit was against the Maharashtra Director of Technical Education, S K Mahajan. Two non-SC/ST officials of the organisation had filed a false complaint against a Dalit employee. Mahajan had refused to take punitive action according to the POA against the two officials falsely complaining against a Dalit employee. The 20 March 2018 verdict by justice A K Goel provided for granting anticipatory bail to accused persons under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989.

It also made mandatory a preliminary enquiry by the police on whether the complaint under the Act is ‘frivolous or motivated’ before registering a case. Both these conditions were not part of the original legislation. The verdict was based on the view that members of the SC/ST used the 1989 law to lodge false complaints, leading to the arrest of innocent persons.

Fortunately, in October 2019, after considerable protest from civil society and political parties, the apex court recalled the verdict following a Central government review plea. It is thus understood that structural change should play an important role in positive intervention by the State. One of the greater challenges for policy makers is to address the structural conditions which generate and aggravate caste conflict and atrocities related to it. The idea of substantive democracy should be enhanced rather than procedural democracy.

The SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, combined with various constitutional provisions for protection of women and weaker sections offer ample scope to uphold a just society and freedom from caste-based discrimination, atrocities and rampant violence. These are just not issues of human right but that of social norms and mind set and finally of political emancipation. After all, a progressive society cannot let defeat and death win. As Vemula wrote in his suicide note, he gave up when he realised that, ‘the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living’. Values for social justice need to be transferred from ideology to practice.

(Author: Dr Rachna Kumari Prasad is assistant professor, Department Political Science, Mata Sundri College, University of Delhi. Apart from teaching, she works on issues of Forest Rights, Environment and Gender Justice.)


  • Annual Reports of the Commissioner for SC/ST for 1955-1985.
  • First Report of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 12 March, 1992 to 31t March, 1993.
  • Prasad, Rachna Kumari (2013): ‘Dalit and Tribal Rights’, New Delhi, Book Age Publication.
  • Sankaran, S R (2000): ‘Fifty Years of the Indian constitution: Human Rights of Dalits’, Indian Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 4, No. 1&2, Jan-Dec.
  • Shah, Ghanshyam. (2002): ‘Dalits and the State’, New Delhi, Centre for Rural Studies Publication.
  • Third Report of the National Commission for SC/ST, 1994-95 & 1995-96.
  • The Hindu (2012): Report on the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, May 19, p.11.
  • The Hindu (2013): ‘Atrocities that no longer shock’, October 15, p.11.
  • Hindustan Times (2018): ‘SC/ST Act: More Symbolic than effective’, August 03, p.15.
  • Hindustan Times (2019): ‘Top courts set aside 2018 SC/ST verdict, October 02, p.2.
  • Weiner, Myron (2001): ‘The Struggle for Equality: Caste in Indian Politics’ in Atul Kohli (ed.) India’s Success of Democracy, New Delhi, Cambridge University Press.

[This paper was edited by Papri Sri Raman]

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