Dilution of SC/ST Atrocities Act: What Is the Top Court’s Message?

“The taste of anything can be changed. But poison cannot be changed into nectar.” – BR Ambedkar

Caste has been a permanent speed-breaker in the progress of our country, and 29 years after a law to protect the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes from atrocities came into existence, the Supreme Court diluted one of its provisions.

On 20 March, the apex court issued a slew of guidelines that would protect public servants and private individuals from arbitrary and immediate arrest under the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

While the Central government urged the top court to seek recall of its judgment, nine people lost their lives and dozens were injured as Dalit protests during a day-long nation-wide shutdown on Monday, 2 April, snowballed into violent clashes.

Amid anger and outrage over the dilution of one of India’s most progressive laws, what effect will the judgment have on the growing number of atrocities that afflict the country’s lower castes?

The Vision Behind the 1989 SC/ST Atrocities Act

The 1989 Act, which was amended in 2015, punished casteist slurs and denied anticipatory bail to the accused. Making the 1989 Act more stringent, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, added that actions like tonsuring of head, moustache, or similar acts which are derogatory to the dignity of members of SCs and STs, will now also be treated as atrocities.

With the objective of eradicating inherent discriminatory attitudes against the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955 was initially passed in Parliament in 1955. In 1976 it was renamed the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act. Owing to the ineffectiveness of the Act, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act came into existence in 1989 with its Statement of Objects and Reasons stating:

“Despite various measures to improve the socio-economic conditions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, they remain vulnerable. They are denied a number of civil rights. They are subjected to various offences, indignities, humiliations and harassment… A special legislation to check and deter crimes against them committed by the non-scheduled Castes and non-Scheduled tribes has, therefore, become necessary”.

What Did the SC Say on 20 March 2018?

According to the court’s directive on 20 March, coercive action against public servants, accused of hostility towards the lower caste, can only be taken with written permission from their appointing authority. For private citizens accused of a similar crime, arrest can be made only after the Senior Superintendent of Police concerned allows it.

Coupled with this, the court said there was no complete bar against granting anticipatory bail if there is no prima facie case or if, upon investigation, the case registered under the PoA is found to be ‘mala fide’ or motivated in bad faith.

Reiterating the “abuse of law” under the SC/ST Atrocities Act, the bench of Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel and Justice Uday Umesh Lalit, on 20 March, said the guidelines have been issued because the law has been often misused to “blackmail” innocent public servants and private individuals to wreak personal vengeance or serve vested interests.

Innocent citizens are termed accused, which is not intended by the legislature. The legislature never intended to use the Atrocities Act as an instrument to blackmail or to wreak personal vengeance.
SC judgment

The top court said that false complaints to implicate innocent people have often been filed to promote caste hatred and “perpetuate casteism”.

“It is necessary to express concern that working of the Atrocities Act should not result in perpetuating casteism which can have an adverse impact on integration of the society and the constitutional values,” the bench observed.

The top court was hearing a petition filed by Subhash Kashinath Mahajan, Maharashtra’s director of technical education, who had challenged a Bombay High Court judgment.

The high court had rejected a plea to quash the complaint filed against Mahajan by Bhaskar Karbhari Gaidwad, a store-keeper in a pharmacy college in Maharashtra, for making adverse entries in Gaidwad’s Annual Confidential Report.

Gaidwad had contended that Mahajan was not competent to deal with his application as it could have been dealt by the state government alone.

Reversing the judgment, the Supreme Court said the proceedings were a “clear abuse of process of court” and said that the law is being misused for three decades, since the time it came into force.

What Are the Political Parties Demanding?

Parties from across the political spectrum have taken exception to the dilution of the PoA and has been seeking a review of the order from the government. \

Seeking the judgment's recall by the top court, the government said it "entails wide ramifications and implications resulting in dilution of the stringent provisions" of the 1989 law.

The petition referred to the "increase" in the "disturbing trend" of "certain atrocities" where Scheduled Castes were made to eat "inedible substances like human excreta", attacks on them and mass killings and rape of women belonging to SC and ST.

Meanwhile, Dalit protests across the country turned violent killing nine people on 2 April. Protesters clashed with police in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha – states where normal life was paralysed in varying degrees amid incidences of violence and arson.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi took the opportunity to attack Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He said on Twitter that the dilution of arrest provisions in the SC/ST Act by the Supreme Court comes in the backdrop of "growing" atrocities on Dalits and tribals across the country.

Dilution of SC/ST Atrocities Act: What Is the Top Court’s Message?

A delegation of NDA's SC and ST MPs, led by an ally of the BJP, Lok Jan Shakti party chief Ram Vilas Paswan, and Union Social Justice Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot, also met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss the apex court’s judgment.

Gehlot recently wrote to Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad about a review plea against the Supreme Court verdict. He noted that there were concerns that the order would make the law "ineffective" and adversely impact the dispensation of justice to Dalits and tribals.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) had also urged the government to immediately file a review petition against the "retrograde judgment".

The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) have also conveyed their views and demanded a review of the verdict, saying the original Act, as it existed before the SC verdict, should be restored.

Even PS Krishnan, former Secretary to Union ministry of welfare, and currently a member of the National Monitoring Committee for Education of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Persons with Disabilities, also wrote to Union minister for social justice and empowerment, Thaawar Chand Gehlot, detailing out the steps that the Centre could take in the wake of the judgment. Quoting lack of evidence, Krishnan cited that the judgment is not backed with fact, according to The Indian Express.

With Refusing to Stay Gujarat HC Order, Is SC Reinforcing Its Decision?

Even after adverse reactions from political parties and citizens, the Supreme Court while hearing a case under PoA Act refused to stay a Gujarat High Court order granting bail to two builders accused of Dalit atrocities.

The High Court had granted anticipatory bail to two builders accused of land grabbing and atrocities against tribals, relying on the top court’s 20 March order.

The bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud, on 26 March, issued a notice to the accused and the Gujarat government.

Low Conviction, Edgy Figures: What Does the Data Show?

Contrary to the allegation of “abuse of law” by the Supreme Court, official data hints at a weak implementation of the PoA Act instead of its misuse, with a strikingly low rate of conviction and increasing momentum of crimes against the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data reveals that the number of crimes against scheduled castes have gone up by 5.5 percent in 2016. The figures which stood at 38,670 in 2015 rose to 40,801 in 2016.

In the case of Scheduled Tribes, the numbers reflected an increase of 4.7 percent from 2015 to stand at 6,568 in 2016.

The data also showed that under the SC/ST (PoA) Act, 1989, while the chargesheeting rate is 77 percent, the conviction rate was only 15.4 percent.

The number of cases found to be “true but (with) insufficient evidence” were 2,150. 5,347 cases were recorded to be “false”, and 869 cases were said to be “mistake of fact”.

Renowned former journalist and one of the most formidable Dalit voices, Dilip C Mandal said, “These figures mean that the law is not implemented properly and the investigating agencies do not do their work properly. The Supreme Court could direct the government to arrange the correct implementation of this law. But instead, the court decided to weaken the law itself.”

Social activist and writer Kancha Ilaiah said, “It is not easy for the lower caste to get justice because the ones at the top are also reluctant to investigate SC/ST cases efficiently.”

(With PTI, IANS inputs)