SC reverses its own dilution of SC/ST Act

One-and-a-half years after its controversial verdict doing away with automatic arrest provision in the law to prevent atrocities against Dalits and tribals, the Supreme Court restored the original dispensation saying the previous order had strayed into legislative domain.

The dilution of the stringent provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act had sparked angry, and in some instances, violent protests by Dalits across the country. A vote in Parliament undoing the ruling triggered an upper caste backlash against BJP governments in assembly polls in end-2018 and saw the Centre legislating a quota for economically weaker sections (read upper castes).

A two-judge bench, comprising justices AK Goyal (now retired) and UU Lalit, had in March last year directed that police had to conduct a preliminary inquiry in seven days before taking any action on a complaint and also introduced provision of anticipatory bail for accused, overriding the section that says pre-arrest bail does not apply for offences under the anti-atrocities Act.

Justifying its direction, the court had said that such protective provision is required to safeguard the interests and dignity of the innocent and to prevent misuse of the Act as an instrument to blackmail or wreak personal vengeance.

Opposition parties had swiftly pinned the verdict on BJP accusing the ruling party of being anti-Dalit even as the government rushed to SC seeking review of its ruling. Soon, it amended the law to nullify the SC verdict thus ensuring that the ruling was virtually never enforced.

On Tuesday, however, the response of the political class was strikingly subdued as a three-judge bench of Justices Arun Mishra, M R Shah and B R Gavai admitted that the court wrongly ventured into the domain of legislature by framing guidelines, and rejected the fear of misuse that the apex court had earlier cited to insert safeguards. It said all humans are equal, including in their failings, and it would be against fundamental human equality to treat SCs and STs as persons who are particularly prone to lodge false reports for revenge or monetary benefits. It said making such a presumption would be “adding insult to injury” to those who have suffered discrimination from ages. “As a matter of fact, members of SCs and STs have suffered for long, hence, if we cannot provide them protective discrimination beneficial to them, we cannot place them at all at a disadvantageous position that may be causing injury to them by widening inequality and against the very spirit of our Constitution,” the court said.

The contentious verdict had held that a public servant can be arrested under the anti-atrocity law only after sanction from appointing authority and, in case of a non-public servant, after approval by the SSP.“There is no presumption that members of SCs and STs may misuse the provisions of law as a class and it is not resorted to by the upper castes or members of the elite class. For lodging a false report, it cannot be said that the caste of a person is the cause. It is due to the human failing and not due to the caste factor. Caste is not attributable to such an act. On the other hand, members of SCs and STs due to backwardness hardly muster the courage to lodge even an FIR, much less, a false one,” the bench said in the much -awaited verdict.

The bench ruled the guidelines are against the constitutional principles to protect the weaker communities from discrimination and brushed aside findings of the earlier bench that the law is being misused. Countering the justification given by the division bench that 9 to 10% cases under the Act were found to be false, the bench noted the percentage of cases concerning other general crimes such as forgery as comparable, namely 11.51% whereas for kidnapping and abduction, as per NCRB data for 2016, it is 8.85%.

Members of SCs and STs have suffered for long, hence if we cannot provide protective discrimination beneficial to them, we cannot place them... at a disadvantageous position that may be causing injury to them by widening inequality and against the very spirit of our Constitution

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