Will Conviction of Sarpanch & 12 Others for Murder of a Dalit Farmer deter Crimes against Dalits?

Source: Sabrangindia.in

In arecent judgement that gave some sense of justice, Special Judge (SC/ST Act), Pradeep Mittal, sentenced all 13 accused to life imprisonment for a fatal attack on a farmer who happened to also be a Dalit.  Before the fatal attack on September 30, 2017 45 year old NeelamAhirwar, had been assaulted twice on both September 16 and September 25, the second attack led him to approach the police to file a complaint under the Atrocities Act.

Delivering the judgement on June 1, Justice Mittal noted that the prosecution proved its case beyond doubt and rejected the plea to show leniency to some accused that are young. He sentenced the accused to life in prison under IPC sections 302 (murder) and 459 (grievous hurt caused while committing house trespass or housebreak). While the complaint was filed under the SC/ST Atrocities act, the sentencing was only on sections of the penal code, however.Regrettably, the police entered into action mode only after Ahirwar lost his life.

Justice was finally done after a 45-year old Dalit farmer, Neelam Ahirwar, lost his life. He was beaten to death when he tried to lodge a complaint against a group of upper caste men under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in Mahukhan village, Madhya Pradesh in September 2017.

Background of the case:
The gruesome incident dates back to September 2017 and has its roots in the false accusation on Ahirwar of stealing a tractor from the village, about 20 km from Guna, and then 15-kg urad dal from the Mahukhan gram panchayat. A group of local upper caste men, led by the sarpanch, Pravin alias Pintu Sharma, had accused Ahirwar of committing the theft.

On September 15, sarpanch Pravin, who has a criminal record, tricked Ahirwar into coming to Mahukhan when he was at a nearby village by saying that the stolen tractor was found. When Ahirwar reached the gram panchayat office, he along with Sonu, were accused of stealing dal. Ahirwar was also brutally beaten by the upper caste men before they handed both the accused to the Myana police on September 16.

In his defence, Ahirwar had said that he, along with his brother, had 25 bighas of land and enough pulses at home which prove that he didn’t have any urge to commit the theft. As a result, he was released on bail on September 25. Later, the sub-divisional magistrate had found both the allegations to be false.

On the day when Ahirwar was released on bail, he was again assaulted by the same group of men, thereby forcing him to approach the police to file a complaint under the Atrocities Act. Enraged, a group of 13 men, including the sarpanch, entered Ahirwar’s house on September 30 and brutally attacked him which led to his death in the hospital. In the course, his wife, Rajbai, was also injured.

Stating that Ahirwar’s courageous step to approach the police and file a complaint against the upper caste men triggered the September 30 assault, Superintendent of Police, Guna, Avinash Singh, said, “This didn’t go down well with the upper caste community members. A number of people from the upper caste entered Ahirwar’s house with sticks and canes and attacked him and his family members. Ahirwar was seriously injured, while his wife received injuries to her head. Ahirwar was rushed to a hospital where he died during treatment.”

Predictably, this horrific incident has had a huge impact on Ahirwar’s family who continue to stay under threat. Ahirwar’s son, Chhotu, said, “We are very poor and he was the only breadwinner of the family. Now, we are also scared of them because if they can kill my father for lodging a complaint, then they can kill us too.”

Negligence of Police:
What is pertinent to note is that though Ahirwar had approached the police just five days before the fatal attack to express his apprehension about the threat on his life. However, the police failed to take any prompt action. According to the kin of the deceased, Ahirwar was so frightened after the September 25 attack, that he didn’t even leave the house until he was forcefully thrown out by the attackers on September 30.

Leave alone arresting the accused under the Atrocities Act, the police didn’t even start any investigation. The possibility of the involvement of sarpanch leading to police inaction then cannot be ruled out!

The Judicial Journey: 
The Accused:
An FIR was lodged in the Myana police station against 13 accused namely- Dharmendra Sharma, Mithun Sharma, Rishu Sharma, Shivnandan Sharma, Anurag Sharma, Jitendra Sharma, Anil Kushwah, Shivkumar Sharma, Pintu @ Pravin (Sarpanch), Arun Sharma, Shyam Kumar Sharma, Talwari Sharma and Dinbandhu Sharma. Notably, 12 of the 13 accused belong to the upper castes and one is from the OBC. Also, six of them are below 25 and three under 30 years of age.

Penal Provisions:
The accused were charged under multiple sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.
IPC sections: 147(rioting), 148 (rioting armed with deadly weapon), 149(unlawful assembly for a common object), 294 (obscene acts and songs in public places), 302(murder), 452 (house-trespass after preparation for hurt, assault or wrong­ful restraint),  323 (voluntarily causing hurt) and 459(grievous hurt caused while committing house trespass or housebreak).

Atrocities Act sections: 3(2)(v) (an offence punishable with ten years or more under IPC shall be punishable with life), 3(2)(va) (committing an offence against a person knowing that he is a member of SC or ST).

Judicial Proceedings:
The case, Police Station, Myana, Guna, MP versus the thirteen accused, was filed in the District and Sessions Court, Guna under the category of ‘Special Cases (Atrocity)’ on December 1, 2017, almost three months after the fatal incident. The first hearing took place on December 20, 2017. All the proceedings took place in the special court as mentioned in the Atrocities Act.

The entire case lasted for about 18 months from the day of filing in which 27 witnesses were produced by the police and 12 by the respondents. The most important witnesses were the victim’s wife, Rajbai and daughter, Babita.
As reported in the Indian Express, Public Prosecutor (PP), Alankar Vasishta, said that the respondents, with the help of its 12 witnesses, tried to prove that they were not present at the scene of the crime. The accused even claimed that they had differences within and could not have come together to carry out such an act.

Notably, the accused weren’t brought to the court during the entire course of trial except for a first few hearings and the last hearing on June 1, 2019. The entire trial was thus conducted via video conferencing.

The Judgement:
The judgement brings a sense of relief, especially to the Dalit minority, considering the constant threat that they face from sections of the upper castes, the power play often stopping them from taking any legal course. This judgement could well act as a precedent for many such cases under the Atrocities Act as the judge meted out substantive justice even to the accused who was a sarpanch of the village.The judgement validates Article 21 of the Constitution that upholds the principle of equality before the law: a person’s caste cannot be a defence to commit crimes, giving him a leeway to oppress the already vulnerable and voiceless.

The End of Agony?
Though the judgement finally convicts the guilty, the complicity and apathy of the police cannot be ignored. It was this that led to the death of an innocent, merely because he belonged to the lower caste. Further, it cannot be forgotten that this one judgement, how much ever crucial, may not have a blanket effect and restrain the upper castes from oppressing the lower castes. A quick look at the data will give us a reality check as to the status of minorities in the state of Madhya Pradesh, where the horrific incident took place, as well as the entire country.

According to the Census of India, 2011 the Scheduled Castes (SCs) comprise 16.6% (201 million) of India’s population, up from 16.2% in 2001. Further, the Scheduled Tribes (STs) form 8.6% (104 million) of the country’s population, up from 8.2% over a decade. Despite laws for protection of the minorities, they continue to face immense discrimination and backlash from society which remains entrenched with caste biases and beliefs.

The Condition of the Dalit Minority in Madhya Pradesh:
According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, Madhya Pradesh ranked fourth in terms of atrocities committed against the SCs and STs with a share of 12.1% in 2016. In the past one decade a total of 42,534 crimes have been committed against the SCs with grievous hurt and rape topping the chart. In case of STs, a total of 16,554 crimes have been committed with rape being the highest. Overall, 59,088 crimes were committed against SCs and STs from 2005 to 2016.

Source: NCRB

The above table gives an overview of the major crimes against the SCs and STs in the past one decade.

Condition of Dalit Minorities in India:
Despite having the Prevention of Atrocities Act in place, with provisions for day-to-day proceedings (section 14(3)) until all witnesses have been examined and the completion of trial within two months from the date of filing the charge sheet, there continues to be an immense delay, as can be seen from the case in discussion. Even after the 2015 amendment was passed, which explicitly laid down the duties of the public servant and the penal provisions in case of non-compliance, minorities continue to be a victim of police apathy.

  • Crimes against Dalits up by 746% and Advisais by 1,160%:

In the past one decade until 2016, the rate of crimes against Dalits rose by eight times to 746%. According to an IndiaSpend analysis of the NCRB data, therewere 2.4 crimes per 100,000 Dalits in 2006, rising to 20.3 in 2016. The rate of crime against Adivasis grew by over 12 times (1,160%), from 0.5 in 2006 to 6.3 in 2016.

As many as 422,799 crimes against SCs have been reported between 2006 and 2016. The highest increases in crimes were recorded in eight states – Goa, Kerala, Delhi, Gujarat, Bihar, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Sikkim – where rates rose over 10 times. Meanwhile 81,322 crimes against STs have been reported from 2006 to 2016, with the highest increases in crime rates recorded in Kerala, Karnataka and Bihar.

In 2016, Uttar Pradesh (10,426 cases = 25.6%) reported the highest number of cases of atrocities against SCs followed by Bihar with (5,701 cases = 14%) and Rajasthan with (5,134 cases = 12.6%). The highest cases were that of assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty at 7.7% (3172 cases) followed by rape at 6.2% (2,541 cases).

In the case of STs, the number of cases stood at 6,827 in 2014, fell by 8.1% to reach 6,276 in 2015, and then rose by 4.7% to 6,568 in 2016. Further, Madhya Pradesh reported the highest number of cases of atrocities against STs (1823 cases = 27.8%) followed by Rajasthan (1,195 cases = 18.2%) and Odisha (681 cases = 10.4%). The highest number of cases against the STs were that of rape (974 cases = 14.8%) followed by assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty (835 cases = 12.7%) and kidnapping and abduction (163 cases = 2.5%).

  • Two-fold increase in cases pending police investigation:

As stated earlier, there continues to remain a delayed action on the part of the police when it comes to atrocities against the minorities. The following table shows the number of cases of crimes against the SCs and STs pending police investigation and the percentage rise from 2006 to 2016.

SCsSTs
YEAR2006201620062016
NUMBER OF CASES8,38016,6541,6762,602
INCREASE IN PERCENTAGE OF CASES99%55%

Also, it should be noted that Bihar has the worst pendency rate for crimes against SCs with 4,311 cases pending police investigation as in 2016. Andhra Pradesh has the worst performance in terms of pending police investigation in crimes against STs with 405 cases pending as in 2016.
Further, final reports submitted by the police in 2016 revealed that the police had found 2150 cases to be “true but (with) insufficient evidence”, 5,347 cases to be “false”, and 869 cases to be “mistake of fact.” Notably, almost 49% of the false cases were recorded in Rajasthan (2,632 cases).

  • 50% of cases of crimes against Dalits pending trial:

While it is a known fact that a lot many cases of atrocities against the minorities are not even registered or are stopped from registering, those that manage to reach the court also face many difficulties to get justice.

From 2006 to 2016, crimes against dalits pending trial have risen by 50%, from 85,264 to 129,831. In 2016 alone, 40,801 new cases of crimes against Dalits were registered under the Prevention of Atrocities Act and less than 15,000 cases completed trial that year.  UP with 33,455 such cases pending fared the worst. Further, the number of trials completed in court dropped by 28%– from 20,495 in 2006 to 14,615 in 2016.

For Adivasis, trials completed in a year has nearly halved (by 49%) since 2006– from 2,895 to 4,317 in 2016, while those pending trial has risen by 28%. Madhya Pradesh, with 4,839 pending trial cases, held the worst record.

  • Conviction less than 30% since a decade:

While more than 50% cases are pending trial in the court, the conviction rate continues to be below 30% since a decade! There has been a 2 percentage point decline in conviction rates from 28% in 2006 to 26% in 2016, though the charge sheeting rate was 77% in 2016.
Accused persons in the rest 74% of cases completing trial in 2016 were acquitted, which again is a rise from 2006 when 72% of cases led to acquittals.

The conviction rate in cases of crime against Adivasis, at 21% in 2016, is even worse, showing a 7-percentage-point decline from 2006 (28%) with the rest 79% acquitted.

Source: NCRB

The above table gives an overview of the status of cases of atrocities against SCs and STs in the past four years. As can be seen, the conviction rate was less than one-third in the past four years for both SCs and STs with the only exception being 2014 wherein the conviction rate in ST cases reached 37.9%. Further, the pendency percentage has been more than 85% for both STs and SCs.

A 2017 study by the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism gave some chief reasons for the low conviction rates. Some of those reasons are- late registration of complaints, delays in spot investigation, lack of protection for the victims and reluctance to register crimes under the relevant sections of the Prevention of Atrocities Act.

The Way Ahead?
From the above study it can safely be concluded that the penal provisions aren’t enough so as to ensure that the minorities are safeguarded in our hierarchical society. While it is true that a social change is a must for a just and equal society, we cannot ignore the fact that an efficient and empathetic police force as well as the judiciary will play a crucial role in curbing the numerous atrocities against the minorities.

After the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, replete with polarising themes and communal attacks, second time Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in his victory speech, said that the minorities are made to live in fear and appealed to put an end to this. However, from the above data it is clear enough that they aren’t “made” to live in fear but are actually constantly under threat.

Unfortunately, even today minorities continue to live in peril. And it is our collective duty to ensure that such inhumane treatment and discrimination comes to an end. Also, that the accused aren’t allowed to roam free and further threaten the victim’s family, only because of their power in society. For this to happen, the case of Guna should always be remembered while adjudicating similar cases in the coming future.

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