New Delhi: Two cheers are better than one, or none. But not as good as three. With his awareness about the plight and rights of people from the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs), former bureaucrat and lifelong social justice warrior PS Krishnan only gave two cheers for a judgment delivered by the Supreme Court.
In his last article that Krishnan left incomplete, as he succumbed to a heart condition on November 10, the 87-year-old said that the “third cheer awaits resolution of certain issues vital for the SCs and STs”.
The two cheers were for the ruling of a three-member bench of the Supreme Court consisting of Justices Arun Mishra, MR Shah and BR Gavai on October 1, as it ruled in favour of rights of the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), and “corrected its error” by recalling its March 20, 2018 verdict that virtually diluted provisions of arrest for committing caste atrocities.
Lauding the apex court for the recall and putting the way forward for social justice, Krishnan wrote, “The third cheer awaits resolution of certain issues vital for the SCs and STs, partly touched upon in the present judgment, which will be possible only if the Supreme Court takes certain initiatives, in pursuance of its observations in this judgment…”
In that decision he saw an encouraging example of progressive rulings in future: “Supreme Court laments that caste discrimination has been deep-rooted and that it is an unfortunate state of affairs that the caste system still prevails in the country”. Further, in para 41, the judgment pointed out that “in spite of reservation, the fruits of development have not reached to them”.
In paras 42 and 46, the Supreme Court poignantly referred to the plight of manual scavengers including those required to clean sewers and septic tanks. The court lamented in para 42 that “so far we have not been able to provide the modern methods of scavenging to Harijans due to lack of resources and proper planning and apathy”.
The court observed that “the efforts for their upliftment should have been percolated down to eradicate their sufferings”. In para 41, it concluded that, “by and large, they remain unequal and vulnerable section of the society”.
And in para 46, the court returned to this topic and referred to the death of manual scavengers in sewers, which are like deathtraps, and observed that, “we have not been able to provide the masks and oxygen cylinders for entering in sewer chambers”.
Krishnan observed that after enumerating the plight of the SCs and STs in paras 37, 41 and 42 of the judgment of October 1, the top court asked in para 42, “How long will this continue?” This is reminiscent of Dr BR Ambedkar’s address in the Constituent Assembly in 1949.
He quoted Ambedkar: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”
Over the years, Ambedkar attacked Hindu society for the treatment meted out to the ‘untouchables’, and also maintained that the caste system would not go away unless the old religious texts themselves were questioned. He was also critical of Muslim society, especially its regressive politics and its treatment of women.
“How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up,” Krishnan quoted Ambedkar saying in his address.
Dr Ambedkar’s pertinent questions, “How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?” and “How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?” have reemerged in 2019, after 70 years, through the Supreme Court judgment. The ruling covers extensive ground and touches upon aspects of the continuing sufferings inflicted on SC and ST people. The judgment refers to two painful illustrations of indignity imposed on the scheduled castes. In para 45, the court has reemphasised that the Right to Life under Article 21, is “right to live with dignity” and also “right to die with dignity”.
Body blow to fight for rights
Krishnan mentioned instances like the atrocity in Konalam (1982), Chengalpattu district of Tamil Nadu, close to Chennai city, where the body of a woman was stopped from being taken to the burial ground, and a repeat of that in Patchalanadakuda village (1989), Armoor Taluk, Nizamabad district in present-day Telangana.
“This is not merely an old story of the past,” wrote Krishnan. He further illustrated in the article that as recently as in August 2019, a 46-year-old Dalit man’s body had to be lowered from a 20-foot-high bridge over a river to ensure that it could be cremated after upper-caste Hindus in Tamil Nadu’s Vaniyambadi town in Vellore district did not allow it to be carried through their land.
Also, in Tsundur village of Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district, eight members of the SC community were massacred in 1991. And 28 years later, an appeal in the Supreme Court against the acquittal of the accused by the high court, reversing conviction by the trial court, is still pending. He found that there was no burial ground for scheduled caste people. “This is not an isolated instance. This is the reality in many parts of India. Dignity in life and dignity in death are both equally denied to the SCs, not in isolated pockets, but in many parts of India,” wrote Krishnan.
Searching for answers
In his last article, Krishnan dealt with the practical issue that arose from the Supreme Court’s question, “How long will this continue?”
He wrote: “We have to now consider how to ensure that the same agonising question does not recur one or more decades later and what measures need, in my opinion, to be taken by each limb of the state, including the Supreme Court and the rest of the higher judiciary and the elite society, mostly drawn even now from the socially advanced castes (SACs), the non-SC, non-ST, non-SEdBC castes (NSCTBCs) and recently to a small extent from a few of the upper leaven of the land-owning castes of SEdBCs (socially and educationally backward classes) which control the commanding heights of all institutions.”
Krishnan wrote that in his opinion this would continue indefinitely unless comprehensive social justice measures (legislative, programmatic and schematic) are undertaken and implemented with sincerity and effectiveness, keeping in view the objective of social equality, i.e., the equality of SCs, STs and SEdBCs with SACs in all parameters of development, welfare and life.
“From my more than seven decades of countrywide experience of the SCs, STs and SEdBCs, I have prepared a roadmap of all these social justice measures and communicated it to different governments of the past and present and leaders of political parties,” he wrote. “While governments have implemented a few of them, the most important measures are evaded and Constitution-based and objective-oriented comprehensiveness is missing.”
This is partly because of the social composition of the leadership of the ruling and major parties and partly because of the general orientation of the parties to secure votes, seats and chairs and do only so much as will serve this short-term objective and the related tendency to run with the hare and hunt with the hound, he said.
Krishnan reposed his faith in the judiciary and said that the higher judiciary is the “source from which directions for comprehensive measures and their sincere and effective implementation can emerge”.