The Andhra Pradesh High Court, while deciding the case of Patan Jaman Vali v. State of Andhra Pradesh, had convicted the accused of sexual assault under Section 3(2)(v) of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (henceforth, POA Act) and Section 376(1) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (henceforth, IPC). The victim in this case was a blind, 20 year old Dalit woman. On appeal, the Supreme Court held the conviction under the IPC to be correct, but overturned the defendant’s conviction under the POA Act. J. D.Y. Chandrachud, while writing this judgement, adopted intersectionality to discuss the complex identity questions at the heart of the law of sexual discrimination and oppression.
The accused was sentenced to be imprisoned for life by the lower courts. This sentence was not changed by the Supreme Court, despite finding him guilty only under the IPC and not the POA Act. Hence, it may seem that the overturning of the conviction under the POA Act has no real consequence. However, as Sr. Adv. Jayna Kothari argues, by repeatedly setting aside convictions under the Act, the Courts contribute to the erasure of caste-based violence, encouraging the idea that the Act is falsely used to entrap upper-caste individuals. The Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on Atrocities and Crimes against Women and Children points out that high acquittal rates boost the confidence of dominant castes to continue oppressive acts with impunity. So, it is of value to look closely at what understandings of caste-based violence led the Court to acquit the accused under the POA Act in this case.
J. Chandrachud points to the fact that the people who occupy marginalized positions in more than one system of oppression may face oppression as a result of two or more of these systems. So, it would be reductive to view the victim in this case as suffering oppression only on the basis of one of gender, caste or disability, or on the basis of all these identities separately. The Court uses the theory of intersectionality to understand oppression as something that occurs due to the combined effect of each of these systems. To arrive at this understanding, J. Chandrachud references intersectionality activist Kimberley Crenshaw and the Combahee River Collective’s statement addressing the intersectional oppression of black women in America.
How does the law on caste- based oppression in India gain from intersectionality perspectives? In past cases, the Courts have understood Section 3(2)v of the POA Act to require proof that the victim was targeted “only” on the basis of their caste identity for the POA Act to have application. By employing an intersectional lens, the Court in this case is able to articulate that such an understanding of Section 3(2) (v) defeats the very purpose of the Act. The Court uses intersectional theory to state that such a view treats atrocity and oppression as an individual problem caused by identity, when in fact it is a systemic problem, caused by structures of domination and subordination. Such a structural view enables the Court to identify that the lack of an intersectional view causes the sexual oppression of many SC/ST women to “fall through the cracks” of the legal system- the evidentiary burden of discrimination law based on a single identity is unable to account for discrimination faced at the intersection of many identities.
Despite articulating an awareness about the problems of existing evidentiary burdens, how does the Court acquit the accused under the POA Act? Section 3(2)(v) was amended in 2015 to accommodate the problem of proving that the oppressive act was caused due to the caste location of the victim. In its current form, it states that an accused person who has knowledge of the caste of the victim will be considered to have committed the alleged act on the grounds of the victim’s caste. The Court states that this amendment will not apply to this case, since it occurred before the amendment. It then acquits the accused because it states that the prosecution did not lead any specific evidence to prove a causal link between the caste of the victim, and the act of sexual violence.
While analysing an early case under the POA Act in Maharashtra, Anupama Rao points out that the POA Act deems the everydayness of caste-based violence to be more than just a crime- an “atrocity”. She argues that in doing so, the Act points to the systemic nature of caste based violence, that makes it distinct from other instances of criminal activity. Her analysis suggests that the POA Act fails to deliver justice to victims of caste-based oppression because it requires them to prove an exceptional systemic oppression through the same evidentiary rules that apply to all other crimes. J. Chandrachud’s intersectional analysis in this judgement recognized this problem, but stopped short of addressing a crucial question- what kind of evidence proves that one was oppressed because of their identity?