INDIA: Can caste-based discrimination end without criminal justice reforms?

Discrimination based on caste practices, including untouchability, is a deep and unhealed wound in India’s collective conscience. Caste-based prejudices adversely affect an estimated 160 million Indians. Despite a constitutional injunction and legislations that seeks to prohibit caste-based discrimination, the practice continues in India. Most tribal communities in the country also face discrimination that has its roots in caste-based intolerances.

Left with neither access to redress, nor the capacity to seek and obtain the same, members of communities that have faced caste-based discrimination have often resorted to religious conversion. The hope was this would help cover-up the stigmatised identity privileged caste members had stamped upon those from less privileged ones. However, religious conversion of members from less privileged castes, mostly into different sects of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, only landed the new converts as Dalit/Tribal Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists. Stigmatization, therefore, did not evaporate, and in fact continues to persist.

Life with dignity and freedom is a foundational guarantee in the Indian Constitution. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, is an enforcement mechanism capable of breathing life into this constitutional guarantee. The law, often referred to as the SC/ST Act, criminalised caste-based discrimination with severe punishments.

However, despite good intentions, the law has failed. And, the central reason for the failure of the law is the incapacity of the Indian police to undertake crime investigation. Around 70% of cases tried for offenses punishable under this law have resulted in an acquittal.

The Union Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment admits that the conviction rate in cases of caste-based discrimination hovers around 27-30% and is on a declining curve – though the number of cases registered have remained more or less the same every year since 2007, i.e. at around 30,000 cases per year. The Ministry also admits that an estimated 85% of complaints are still pending investigation or trial.

Caste-based prejudice and its practice is a social evil, rooted in religion. Ending such prejudice is impossible without addressing problems in the mechanism mandated to enforce the law. It is simple logic, similar to that of a farmer who turns his attention to the water pump that keeps failing to deliver water to his fields. India’s civil rights movement and “socially conscious” media have, however, entirely missed this central logic. And, the Indian state has also conveniently overlooked this aspect.

Education, sensitisation, reporting of cases, and organising rallies and protests against caste prejudice are important. But far less lobby work has been undertaken to expose the incapacity of the criminal justice machinery to curb this social evil.

For a 3,000-year-old evil practice like caste-based discrimination to end, the country’s civil society needs to target the state agencies that have failed to enforce the law.

Unless this happens, caste-based discrimination in India will not end.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-048-2015
Countries : India,
Issues : Caste-based discrimination, Corruption, Institutional reform, Right to life, Rule of law,