Supreme Court issues directions to prevent SC/ST Act

Context:

  • The Supreme Court of India on March 20th, 2018 issued directions to prevent the misuse of provisions of Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 (SC/ST Act).

Background:

  • The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 (SC/ST Act), which protects Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from casteist discrimination, is eventually being misused.
  • The past three decades have seen the use of the Act to accuse innocent citizens which is not intended by the legislature.
  • March 20th, 2018: With a view to prevent the misuse of provisions of the Act, the Supreme Court has issued a string of directions.

What are the Supreme Court’s directives to safeguard against arrest and false implication of Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 (SC/ST Act)?

Supreme Court’s directives to safeguards against arrest and false implication of Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 (SC/ST Act) are as follows: (Important for prelims)

  1. There is no absolute bar for granting anticipatory bail in a matter under the Act.
  2. Arrest of a public servant can take place only after approval of the appointing authority and of a non-public servant after approval by the S.S.P. which may be granted in appropriate cases if considered necessary for reasons recorded.
  3. Moreover such reasons must be scrutinized by the Magistrate for permitting further detention.
  4. A preliminary enquiry may be conducted by the DSP concerned to find out whether the allegations make out a case under the Act and that the allegations are not false or motivated.
  5. Any violation of direction (2) and (3) will be actionable by way of disciplinary action as well as contempt.

What is Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989?

  • In 1989, the Government of India enacted the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in order to prevent atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
  • The Act came into force with effect from 30.1.1990.
  • The Act is implemented by the respective State Governments and Union Territory Administrations, which are provided due central assistance under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme for effective implementation of the provisions of the Act.
  • The Act extends to whole of India except Jammu & Kashmir. (Important for prelims)

Objective:

  • The objectives of the Act very clearly emphasize the intention of the Indian state to deliver justice to SC/ST communities through affirmative action in order to enable them to live in society with dignity and self-esteem and without fear, violence or suppression from the dominant castes.

Salient features: (Important for prelims)

  • The provisions of SC/ST Act and Rules can be divided into three different categories, covering a variety of issues related to atrocities against SC/ST people and their position in society.
  • The first category contains provisions of criminal law; it establishes criminal liability for a number of specifically defined atrocities, and extends the scope of certain categories of penalizations given in the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
  • The second category contains provisions for relief and compensation for victims of atrocities.
  • The third category contains provisions that establish special authorities for the implementation and monitoring of the Act.

What are the drawbacks for which the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 (SC/ST Act) has suffered from a near-complete failure in implementation?

Although the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 is a powerful weapon on paper, it is not free from drawbacks.

  • The primary obstacles to implementation are intended to be the primary enforcers of the Act i.e. the police and bureaucracy that form the primary node of interaction between state and society in the rural areas.
  • Nearly a quarter of those government officials charged with enforcing the Act are unaware of its existence.
  • In most cases, unwillingness to file a First Information Report (FIR) under the Act comes from caste-bias.
  • Authorities in charge are reluctant to file cases against fellow caste-members because of the severity of the penalties imposed by the Act; most offenses are non-bailable and carry minimum punishments of five years imprisonment.
  • Judicial delay is another cause of this low conviction rate; the lapse between the case being registered and the trial means that witnesses who are often poor and face intimidation in the interim, turn hostile and the case becomes too weak for a conviction.
  • Besides these the other main deficiencies in the Act is Section 14(2), which merely requires the State governments to specify for each district a Sessions Court to be a special court to try atrocities, contradicting the very purpose “of providing for a speedy trial”.
  • Among the other major deficiencies in the Act are omission of social and economic boycott as a crime, non-provision of death penalty as in the Indian Penal Code, non-availability of protection for the victims by way of the externment of possible perpetrators, and the failure to cover converts to Christianity ( Dalit Christians).

Conclusion:

  • The harassment of an innocent citizen, irrespective of caste or religion, is against the guarantee of the Constitution.
  • Thus, anti-atrocity acts should be kept under complete surveillance so that the ethos of such acts is not being challenged.

Related and important terminology:

Atrocity:

  • The term ‘atrocity’ was not defined until Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 (SC/ST Act) was passed by the Parliament in 1989.

In legal parlance:

  • The Act understands the term to mean an offence punishable under sections 3(1) and 3(2).

In specific terms:

  • Atrocity is “an expression commonly used to refer to crimes against Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in India”.
  • It “denotes the quality of being shockingly cruel and inhumane, whereas the term ‘crime’ relates to an act punishable by law”.
  • It implies “any offence under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) committed against SCs by non-SC persons, or against STs by non-ST persons. Caste consideration as a motive is not necessary to make such an offence in case of atrocity”.
  • It signifies “crimes which have ingredients of infliction of suffering in one form or the other that should be included for reporting”.
  • This is based on the assumption that “where the victims of crime are members of Scheduled Castes and the offenders do not belong to Scheduled Castes caste considerations are really the root cause of the crime, even though caste considerations may not be the vivid and minimum motive for the crime”.

Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes:

  • The Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) are various officially designated groups of historically disadvantaged people in India.
  • The terms are recognized in the Constitution of India and the various groups are designated in one or other of the categories.
  • Article 46 of the Constitution provides that the State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the society and in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.
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