India's parliament approved a series of proposed amendments on Aug. 6 to restore a law to better protect lower-caste Dalit and tribal people from persecution, months after the Supreme Court softened the law. Many believe the move initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is aimed at influencing the upcoming national elections and polls in some key states. The party's traditional power bases were eroded in the latest polls, making it cast nets wider to draw in new voters. "It is has become impossible for the BJP to retain its power in the national elections without the support of the Dalits and tribal voters," Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in Odisha state told ucanews.com. Such minority groups have found themselves alienated by a Supreme Court decision on March 20 that removed some of the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The court's decision meant that complaints of caste-based abuse no longer require the immediate arrest of the accused, a move Dalit groups and activists have criticized as rendering the law's deterrent effect useless. The original law provided for the immediate arrest of the accused without any possibility of bail. However, the Supreme Court ruling in March diluted it by introducing the bail provision and mandating a preliminary investigation before any arrests can be made. The judges rationalized that authorizing an arrest based on a complaint alone would be in violation of the rights of the accused. This was viewed in some camps as a step backwards as the legal framework in a working democracy should protect people's basic human rights regardless of their social standing. While any steps to redress this situation are welcome, Modi's latest move "has more to do with politics and the upcoming elections," according to Archbishop Cuttack-Bhubaneswar. It was not in any way prompted by the government's "concern for the oppressed and other weaker group," the prelate added. The BJP governs a number of states with influential populations of Dalits and other minorities. Three of these — Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan — are due to have elections by the end of the year. A general election is also scheduled for April or May 2019. Several Dalit and tribal leaders who were elected to parliament in 2014 on the BJP's ticket say the party will hemorrhage voters unless the law is brought back. Tribal people and Dalits make up about 30 percent of the population of Madhya Pradesh, which has over 72 million people. They account for 20 percent of the 30 million people who live in Chhattisgarh and 26 percent of Rajasthan's population of 60 million, according to government data. Moreover, some 60 percent of India's 27 million Christians also come from Dalit and tribal communities. Since it rose to power in New Delhi, the BJP has supported the ideology of upper-caste Hindu hegemony that neglected the rights of socially poor Dalit and tribal people, critics of the government say.
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Tribal leader Gulzar Singh Markam said that by seeking to changing the law the government has been "testing the waters" to implement "its agenda of a common civil code" to eliminate any biases in how the law applies to people of different faiths and social groups. Markam said a unified code purportedly aims to end gender discrimination but religious and ethnic minorities suspect it will deprive them of their cultural identities and traditions. Nonetheless, Bishop Paul Toppo of Raigarh Diocese in Chhattisgarh welcomed the move as a positive step. "The Dalit and tribal people will surely be happy with this, however, its misuse is also a matter of great concern," he told ucanews.com.