Untouchability under security meet scanner-Nishit Dholabhai

Untouchability hasn’t been banished in all its forms, a meeting of state ministers with the Centre concluded today and expressed anguish at the dismal conviction rate in crimes against Dalits.

“Untouchability is gone, but only the face of it, as its definition changes. Banks deny credit to Dalits and this is another form of untouchability,” Union home minister P. Chidambaram said at the specially convened meeting as part of the two-day internal security conference.

The focus of the meeting, attended by state home ministers and ministers for social justice and three Union ministers including Chidambaram, was to review the progress made in enforcing the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

The first such review of the law comes at a time the ruling Congress in Delhi is trying to win back Dalits and other backward castes whose lack of support was seen as a factor in the party’s poor show in the recent Uttar Pradesh elections.

Polls are due in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh later this year, and in some 10 states, including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Nagaland, next year.

Chidambaram set the tone for the meeting, saying that if a movie could be made symbolising the public outrage at the Jessica Lal murder case, there should have been an equally shrill outcry for justice in the 1996 killings of 21 Dalits in Bihar’s Bhojpur.

Union social justice and empowerment minister Mukul Wasnik reeled off figures suggesting the conviction rate in cases of atrocities on SCs/STs ranged from 3 to 8 per cent while the backlog of such cases 80 to 90 per cent.

The national average of conviction under the 1989 act is 31 per cent but it is only 6.7 per cent in Bengal and 6.4 per cent in Gujarat. The backlog of cases is 90 per cent in Gujarat and 88 per cent in Bengal. The corresponding figures are 87 per cent for Maharashtra and 82 per cent for Bihar.

“It was the first meeting of its kind. Stock-taking is good,” Chidambaram said.

Union minister for tribal affairs, V. Kishore Chandra Deo, sparked a debate by asking if the failure to transfer forest rights to tribals could be considered an atrocity against tribals. He also wondered if responsibility could be fixed on officials not implementing welfare plans properly.

The Telegraph, 18 April, 2012, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120418/jsp/nation/story_15387914.jsp#.T45kp1L5nYQ

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