SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act and North-East India-My Views

The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was enacted by the Parliament of India (Act 33 of 1989), to prevent atrocities against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. The Act is popularly known as POA, the SC/ST Act, the Prevention of Atrocities Act, or simply the Atrocities Act. The Act states that, “despite various measures to improve the socioeconomic conditions of SCs & STs, they remain vulnerable. They are denied a number of civil rights; they are subjected to various offences, indignities, humiliations and harassment. They have, in several brutal incidents, been deprived of their life and property. Serious atrocities are committed against them for various historical, social and economic reasons.”

The preamble of the Act also states that the Act is, “to prevent the commission of offences of atrocities against the members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, to provide for Special Courts for the trial of such offences and for the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of such offenses and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.

But today the act is battling with demerits like non-reporting of cases, non-registering even if reported and very less conviction rates. The Act especially in North-east has not been able to make much headway. I was invited for a discussion on the Act and its NE perspectives. Though I could not attend the program, I did send it a note consisting of my views. I am sharing it below:-

“Let me start with a disclaimer that this document will only describe about my views and might not be representative on entire North-eastern Region. Though it might make certain references to a few states in North-east to justify an argument, I would consciously refrain myself from saying that it reflects the view of the entire NE region because I don’t want even the people discussing on these issues to see the entire NE as one blanket region with commonalities in its issues/problems.

But any discussion on the Act and its implications to the North-eastern Region will have to very seriously delve upon a few concepts. I start off with an explanation of how the POA act might not find the appropriate context in NE and go on to talk about what are the areas that it can take incorporate to make it suitable in the North Eastern Region.

To substantiate my first statement of POA not finding the appropriate context in NE, I give certain arguments:-

Concept of Atrocity rooted in Caste system and Discrimination against ST/SCs according to POA: Atrocity, in simple terms might mean something which is done by a powerful (Oppressor) person to a weaker one (Oppressed). The power might be derived socially, politically, economically, or even physically. The POA roots the definition as a crime of cruel or inhuman nature committed against an ST/SC person or family, which means it, can only be committed by a non-ST/SC person.
The concept of Oppressor is a subjective one. The tribal people in NE many a times assumes the role of an oppressor rather than the oppressed. The prevalent demographic structure makes the tribes the majority which automatically makes it the oppressor, most of the times. And also moreover, caste system is prevalent on a very minimal scale in NE. Often; the role of the oppressor is played by a tribal person or an indigenous person in NE. For instance, in communities like Deori (in Assam), a non-tribal person, even though he might be a Brahmin is not allowed to enter the chang ghar (Elevated house built on bamboo tilts) which usually serves as the kitchen. Thus, sometimes, the discrimination is reversed.
Therefore, I believe that the POA act which is rooted in the concepts of Caste and Discriminations does not find an appropriate context in NE.

Presence of Constitutional Provisions like Sixth Schedule: As we know that states like Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram have the provisions of Sixth Schedule under which the tribal areas are granted administrative autonomy. These areas are protected for the tribals so in most of these areas, the non-tribals (who many a times, we see as oppressors) are forced to live at the mercy of the tribals. Also other states like Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim etc. have protected status where any non-tribal person cannot buy property and even have to obtain inner line permit to travel. Thus, the other communities are not in a position to inflict upon ‘inhumane’ crime against the indigenous people.

Concept of ‘TRIBE’ as an Identity: – the varying definitions people give to the concepts of ‘Caste’ and ‘Tribe’ also can be discussed I guess. The term ‘Dalit’ is an oppressive term which emanates out of an unequal society. But the term ‘Tribe’ is an administrative term, which was given by the British for Administrative purposes. ‘Tribe’ itself is a negative term. But people no longer accord it a negative connotation. You will see people of North-east being very proud of being a tribe. And if any one tries to harm that identity, the people rise into rebellion. If you observe, that almost all the movements in NE are to protect their tribal identity, land and culture.

Seeing the existing conditions, the POA act is mostly used by the North-eastern people who come to cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Pune etc., are victims of racial discrimination, which sometimes reach inhumane levels. For instance, the NE people are called ‘Chinki’; girls coming from NE region are seen as ‘easy’ owing to the ‘modernity’ in their dressing style etc. Though these cases directly fall under the purview of the POA act, very few of the complaints are taken in lodged as FIR, forget registering them under the POA act.

For POA to be efficient in a region like North-east, it will have to address the very concrete issues.

•Firstly, it will have to have a very clear understanding of the structural realities of the North-eastern region. It needs to understand that the tribal societies today are not as egalitarian as before. For instance, the Bodos society today has large number of fragmentation within it and many of the ‘oppressors’ belong to their own community. And it is the reality with almost every tribe in NE. thus; oppression of this nature will have to be considered under POA at least at the NE region.

•In states like Assam, with the phenomenon of increased Hinduisation and Christianization, some of the members of tribe view themselves as above the other ones, leading to certain inequalities. I can also quote an example of the tribes in Jharkhand where certain hinduised Gondwana tribes consider themselves Kshtriyas and don’t share space or dine with the other members of their own tribes. Though it has not seeped into NE majorly, these realities need to be considered under the Act.

• Moreover, it also needs to acknowledge the changing circumstances in the NE region. For instance, in Assam with the influx of ‘illegal immigrants’, the tribals are becoming minority in their own region. And also they are fighting against the forced blanket Assamese nationalism term. In Manipur many are fighting against the Meithei domination. Oppression of this nature will also have to consider under it.

•Though many of the tribes in NE region are proud of their tribal identity, it has been observed in states like Assam, where the larger Assamese communities still accord a ‘primitive’ status to the tribes. For instance, they still address my community (Mising) as ‘Miri’ which is considered negative by the Misings. Moreover, some of them accord the same status to other tribes of Manipur, Nagaland etc. in Assam. These cases are not reported or are not even seen as cases because it is not seen as a problem. Thus, the people should be made more aware of the Act and also an efficient POA should take cognizance of it.

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