The following is a press release issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong:
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from Navsarjan, a human rights organisation working on Dalit rights in Gujarat, about caste based discrimination practiced during village panchayat (village council) meetings since 2007. The victim in this case was denied the right to file a complaint with the local police and moreover, he was insulted by the session's judge while he was giving evidence in court. Despite serious discrimination by the public servants, one of the accused still functions as the village head, while the others are under suspension.
In January 2007, Mr. Natu Dahya attended a panchayat (village council) meeting. Natu was elected as a panchayat member of Marida village, Nadiad block, Kheda district.
The panchayat meeting is held once a month, and the meeting in January was the first for new panchayat members. The panchayat meeting of Marida village consists of a village head, the Block Revenue Officer and 11 panchayat members. Natu is the only member from the Dalit community, while the others are members of the dominant caste community in Marida village.
At the first meeting, Natu sat on a chair just like the other panchayat members. After the meeting, the village head Mr. Vinu Shana Chauhan, and the Block Revenue Officer Mr. Mangal Chauhan, took the chair away from Natu Dahya saying, "Why are you Banghi (a derogatory term for the victim's sub-caste) sitting on a chair? When you sit on a chair, the chair becomes untouchable… Wash it." Natu was forced to wash the chair and sit on the floor.
At the second meeting, Mr. Mahesh Ranchhod Chauhan and Mr. Nanji Dipa Chauhan also prevented Natu from sitting on a chair saying, "You have to sit on the floor. Don't sit on a chair." In fact, they are not official panchayat members but were attending the panchayat meeting in the place of their wives, who are official panchayat members. In addition, while other panchayat members were eating snacks on the table all together, Natu was given snacks separately, with a piece of newspaper used as a plate.
The very fact that two persons who were present in the meeting and who abused Natu were the husbands of two elected female members also reflects the male superiority in India. Such practices are common in India, which in effect undermines the very purpose of the positive reservation for women in India. Though India boasts about women presidents and prime ministers, in the rural backdrop, the role of an average Indian woman is to cook, become pregnant and to remain inside the house.
At the third meeting, when Natu proposed his opinion regarding village development, the village head Vinu Shana ignored Natu's opinion saying, "You do not have a right to talk about it. I decide what we do." As a member of the panchayat, Natu's right of opinion and expression was violated during the public meeting.
Natu tried to file a complaint at the Nadiad Police Station against these public servants several times after the first meeting regarding the practice of untouchability. But the police refused to register his complaint. The Police Sub-Inspector (PSI), Mr. A.S. Sayyed, who refused to register a complaint, was reportedly influenced by a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Mr. Natvarsinh Chauhan, who has supports the dominant caste community in Marida village.(photo 3: victim Natu Dahya)
Half a year later, on 7 July 2007, the Nadiad Police Station registered a First Information Report (FIR) (Register No. 27/2007) only after Natu called for his complaint to be registered while holding a sitting-in protest in front of the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP)'s office. The crimes in the FIR against the accused are under Indian Penal Code 1860; Sections 506 (criminal intimidation) and 114 (abetting an offence) and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 Section 3(1)(x) (intentionally insult or intimidation with intent to humiliate a member of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe in public view).
After Natu's complaint, two accused, Mahesh Ranchhod and Nanji Dipa repeatedly pressured the victim to withdraw the complaint and threatened that they would break the victim's leg and kill him.
On 21 August 2007, the Kheda District Development officer Mr. G.R. Chaudhary ordered a suspension of the accused village head, Mr. Vinu Shana Chauhan, under the Panchayats Act 1993 Section 59 (1) (Suspension of Sarpanch or Upa-Sarpanch). The revenue officer Mr. Mangal was also suspended. Vinu Shana, however, was reinstated by the State Development Commissioner after his appeal to the state government.
Caste based discrimination against the victim continued even in court. On 11 January 2008, Natu's case was taken up at the Fast Track Court of Nadiad. While Natu was giving his statement under oath in court, the Sessions Judge Mr. Sethi Punjabi said the following (as written in the victim and the witnesses' affidavits):
"I am a Punjabi by caste. Even if someone called me 'Shikh' instead of 'Punjabi', I would not consider it as an abuse."
"It is normal… normal in the country. I also feel so. Why did you file a complaint? In my chamber, I used to have two sets of paper plates to offer snacks. I offer different plates to different people. In doing so, nothing is illegal and there are not any forms of discrimination. It is a personal choice. You should not take it as discrimination."
"When I was in Junagadh district posted at Junagadh Court, I took a cigarette only when it was offered by a Patel (upper caste). I did not take cigarettes offered by other low castes."
The judge's biased attitude reflected in his statements during the hearing prevented the victim, Natu, from giving an appropriate statement in court. On 15 January 2008, the victim submitted a complaint against Sessions Judge Mr. Sethi Punjabi to District Judge R.M. Parmar; the Chief Justice of Gujarat High Court; the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; and the Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of India.
However, the victim has not received any response from the authorities about his complaint against the Sessions judge. The case against four accused is also pending in court.
In Marida village of Kheda district, 125 kilometers south of Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, the Thakor community (Other Backward Class; OBC) is politically and economically a dominant caste.
Out of a total of 500 households in Marida village, 300 households are from Thakor or Darbar (dominant caste) communities. 50 households belong to the Patel (upper caste) community. There is a Dalit community (Scheduled Caste; SC, in legal parlance) of 65 households, other OBCs and a Muslim community. (Photo 4, photo 5, photo 6 and photo 7 of Marida village)
According to the villagers, the majority Thakor community members have discriminated against and abused other communities to politically control the village. Five years ago, one Patel was elected as a village head but had to resign during his term as he was abused and threatened by members of the Thakor community. The Thakors occupy various political positions to dominate the village. The accused in this case are all from the Thakor community; 10 out of the total 13 people attending panchayat meetings also belong to the Thakor community. As this case describes, Thakor community members also pressure the local police not to register the complaint against their community members.
The victim, Natu, was the first Dalit member of the panchayat of Marida village who ever tried to sit on a chair during a panchayat meeting. There were other Dalit members of the panchayat before Natu, but they had never tried sitting on a chair during a panchayat meeting, due to the practice of 'untouchability' by other panchayat members. It was not until the fifth panchayat meeting that Natu was able to sit on a chair.
Local police generally refuse to register complaints regarding caste based discrimination at the local police station. This is the first obstacle in the justice system in India. For a Dalit victim this acts as a double hurdle. If the victim persists, and keeps pushing his complaint over time, the case is more likely to be registered. This illuminates the link between local police with dominant caste persons. Both the neglect of police authority and pressure of third-party dominant caste members are neither properly investigated nor punished.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (SC/ST Act) 1989
3(2)(vii) states that being a public servant, commits any offence under this section, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one year but which may extend to the punishment provided for that offence.
In the FIR against the four accused, however, the police failed to mention this section, providing space to reduce the gravity of the accused's crimes. In this case, some of the accused are public servants (as two of the accused served as panchayat members during the meeting); not only did they neglect their duties, but they also committed an offence under the SC/ST Act.
The SC/ST Act 1989 Section 4 also provides for the punishment of a public servant who willfully neglects the duties required to be performed by him under this Act. It emphasizes the importance of public servants' duty to prevent caste based discrimination or atrocities.
Needless to say, that this case occurred in the public sphere and by public servants demonstrates both the intensity, seriousness and prevalence of caste based discrimination in Indian society. In particular, the Sessions judge's caste biased attitude and statements during the hearing directly explains that "untouchability" exists in India, and is even considered a normal phenomenon. This may be a major reason why the SC/ST Act is openly ignored or belittled, even in court.
In accordance with the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD, Articles 1 and 2, special measure), General Recommendation XXIX (2002) recommends to formulate and put into action a comprehensive national strategy with the participation of members of the affected communities, in order to eliminate discrimination against members of descent-based groups.
Even though the government of India introduced a policy of reservation for the Dalits and women, "untouchability" in the public field continues unabated.
The ICERD recommends immediate and effective measures, particularly in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information, in order to combat prejudices (Article 7). In the ICERD's General Recommendation, furthermore, it is recommended to organise training programmes for public officials and law-enforcement agencies, with a view towards preventing injustices based on prejudice against descent-based communities.