Dalit groups called for country-wide protests against the Supreme Court ruling on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) 1989, as violence broke out in several states. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s central government filed a petition for a review of the ruling in the Supreme Court, and appealed for calm after the first death was reported at Morena, in northern Madhya Pradesh state. Modi urged political parties to “not incite violence”.

The court announced on March 20 that it had banned automatic arrests and the registration of criminal cases under the SC/ST act to protect honest public servants discharging their normal duties from being blackmailed with false cases.

It said public servants now could not be prosecuted without the approval of the appointing authority, while private citizens should be arrested only after a legal inquiry. The Deputy Superintendent of Police will conduct a preliminary inquiry to determine whether cases lodged under the act are frivolous.

However, Dalit organisations and some political parties fear that diluting the act could lead to more violence against their marginalised community. They called a “bharat bandh”, a nationwide shutdown similar to a general strike, which has attracted strong support.

The protest took a violent turn in Hapur and Meerut (Uttar Pradesh), Sambalpur in Odisha, Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh) and Rajasthan’s Barmer, with cars and property reportedly being damaged. Protestors stopped trains at Bihars Forbesganj Junction and in Patiala, Punjab. 

Security was boosted by the state government in Punjab, especially in Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Nawanshahr and Hoshiarpur, with several army units on standby. Punjab has the biggest Dalit population.

Central Board of Secondary Education examinations scheduled for April 2 were postponed because of the protests, and public transport and services at state offices were suspended. Internet services were also suspended on Sunday and no immediate resumption is likely. 

On the one hand, atrocities against Dalits are increasing and, on the other, their biggest weapon against atrocities is being diluted

The petition for a review drafted by the central government’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment is likely to contend that the changes will weaken the Act and reduce the threat of legal reprisals, possibly leading to more violations.

“Supreme Court’s decision on SC/ST Protection Act would not be able to provide justice to the suppressed people, and those accused and deserving of punishment would be saved. Union government took cognizance of it, and the Law Ministry, with our ministry, took the decision that review petition will be filed against the court’s decision,” Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot told ANI.

Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said “the government has filed a comprehensive review petition, which will be presented before the court by the senior lawyers of the government”. 

Some opposition parties concur. On March 28, Congress President Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter to question the court’s decision: “On the one hand, atrocities against Dalits are increasing and, on the other, their biggest weapon against atrocities is being diluted,” he said.

Opposition leaders met with President Ramnath Kevin on Wednesday and submitted a memorandum citing National Crime Records Bureau data of crimes committed against Dalit women.

“Rape cases against Dalit women have doubled from 2007 to 2017 and a 66 per cent increase in atrocities against Dalits have been reported in the last 10 years. This situation has only worsened in the last 3-4 years under the regime of the present government at the Centre,” the memorandum said.

DMK leader T K S Elangovan voiced similar concerns: “Media is coming out with stories of attacks on Dalits and weaker sections. This is not a good sign. They should see that the law is not diluted. We want the president to intervene.” 

CPI(M) leader T K Rangarajan also called for the president’s intervention, adding: “We think that he will take some immediate action and some justice will be done. We told him that conviction rate is very low, atrocities against Dalits, Adivasis, and women are increasing.”

However, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) declined the urgent plea on the ruling filed by the Centre.