[Burning Issue] SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act

Why in News?

  1. In early 2018, Supreme Court stressed the need for providing inbuilt safeguards within the SC/ST (prevention of atrocities) Act to plug its misuse and struck down some provisions and gave some guidelines.
  2. Following a widespread protest from Dalits against the verdict, the Union Cabinet had given its nod to the Amendment Bill to restore the original provisions of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989

  1. SC/ST (prevention of atrocities) Act is a standalone legal protection granted to the depressed classes against casteist slurs, abuses and violence.
  2. It is a comprehensive law which not only defines atrocities against SCs and STs but also makes several rules, regulations etc. for proper protection of these vulnerable sections.
  3. One of the provisions of the law states that public servant neglecting his duties with respect to SCs/STs will be punished with jail term of 6 months to 1 year.
  4. Ministry of social justice and empowerment is the nodal ministry to enforce the provisions of the Act.

Why does the act need to be amended?

  1. The 1989 Act penalises casteist insults and even denies anticipatory bail to the suspected offenders.
  2. There was “acknowledged abuse” of the power to arrest under the Act.
  3. The law is used to rob a person of his personal liberty merely on the unilateral word of the complainant.
  4. Public administration has been threatened by the abuse of this Act.
  5. Public servants find it difficult to give adverse remarks against employees for fear that they may be charged under the Act.
  6. Parliament could not allow arrest without a fair procedure and Article 21 has to be read into every provision of law.
  7. Hence the Supreme Court had struck down some original provisions of the Act and issued some guidelines to protect people against arbitrary arrests under the Act.

SC guidelines

  1. It directed that public servants could be arrested only with the written permission of their appointing authority.
  2. In the case of private employees, the Senior Superintendent of Police concerned should allow it.
  3. A preliminary inquiry should be conducted before the First Information Report (FIR) was registered.
  4. This was to check if the case fell within the ambit of the Act, and whether it was frivolous or motivated.

Arguments against the verdict

  1. The verdict faced sharp criticism from Dalit leaders across the country and political parties. Dalit groups claimed that the court’s order diluted the true spirit of the law.
  2. Article 338 clause 9 stipulates: The Union and every State Government shall consult the National Commission for Scheduled Castes on all major policy matters affecting Scheduled Castes. This has not been followed by the court.
  3. The court appears to have mistaken a large number of acquittals in atrocities cases to be false cases.
  4. But the general consensus is that police apathy, the social and the economic might of the accused and the dependence of SC/STs on those accused is the reason for those acquittals.
  5. Furthermore, there is no precise data on the scale and extent to which the Act has been misused by SC/ST employees.
  6. The call for new guidelines to deal with accused persons is hence likely to dilute the act and provide scope for offenders to escape.
  7. More significantly, it seems to convey that the act is being misused considerably by the depressed classes to blackmail and frame innocents.
  8. Moreover, there are already provisions within the “Indian Penal Code”, which prescribe punishments for falsifying evidence. The court’s verdict doesn’t specify on why these were found insufficient to deal with the falsified SC/ST atrocity cases too.
  9. On the whole, the judgement is likely to make the depressed class more vulnerable to abuse and further their victimisation.

Features of the amendment bill

  1. The Amendment Bill seeks to insert three new clauses after Section 18 of the original Act.
  2. A preliminary enquiry shall not be required for registration of an FIR against any person
  3. The arrest of a person accused of having committed an offence under the Act would not require any approval
  4. provisions of Code of Criminal Procedure on anticipatory bail shall not apply to a case under this Act, “notwithstanding any judgment or order of any Court”
  5. The Centre’s decision to amend the provisions of the Act appears both reasonable and unavoidable at this juncture.

Way forward

  1. Considering the implications, it would’ve been prudent for the bench to have sought larger consultations before pronouncing its verdict.
  2. Article 338 stipulates that governments should consult the “National Commission for SC” on all major policy matters affecting Scheduled Castes.
  3. Similarly, article 338 A mandates all major policy decision affecting STs to be taken in consultation with “National Commission for Scheduled Tribes”.
  4. Considering this, Supreme Court is also bound to hear these commissions before pronouncements that are likely to impact SC/STs on a whole.
  5. But in its urge to weed out the misuse of SC/ST atrocities act, the court seems to have subdued constitutional prudence and overlooked the commissions.
  6. Some argue that SC’s verdict doesn’t constitute a major impactful policy decision and that it merely tweaked the existing act.
  7. But spontaneous protests that erupted in the aftermath indicate otherwise, and the verdict was definitely seen as a major affront on social justice.
  8. However, it is important for the bill or ordinance to provide in clear terms the reasons for reversing the SC order by pondering on the logic applied by the court.
  9. In this case, the SC order was based on the argument that the SC/ST Act was being misused, which needs to be decried for lack of substantiated evidence.
  10. Hence the task of balancing the rights of innocent persons facing false accusations and the need to accord legitimacy to the Atrocities Act requires compassion, reverence for the Constitution and awareness.

Practice question

  1. Discuss the key features of the SC/ST prevention of atrocities Act of 1989 and explain why the Supreme Court had struck down some provisions of the Act. Do you think that SC’s verdict had diluted the true spirit of the law?
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