No more blackmail under SC/ST Act
Twenty-eight years after the enactment of the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the Supreme Court on Tuesday tweaked the law to protect innocent people from the sweep of its draconian provisions which denied anticipatory bail to an accused and led to automatic arrest.
From now on, arrest of any citizen under the Act will require a written approval from a police officer of the rank of Senior Superintendent of Police (equivalent to Additional Commissioner of Police) who will record reasons why an arrest is necessary. Where a public servant is involved, approval must come from the appointing authority. Even at the stage of registration of a case, it will be open to police to conduct a preliminary enquiry (by DSP rank officer) and not proceed in cases where allegations are found to be frivolous or motivated.
Further, as an additional safeguard, the two-judge Bench noted that when an accused is arrested and produced before a Magistrate, the concerned court can apply its mind to ascertain if a prima facie case under the Act is made out. Based on its conclusion, further remand or detention of the accused can be refused. Section 18 of the 1989 Act did not allow an accused to get anticipatory bail. The court removed this bar by interpreting that the provision will not apply to such cases where no case is made out or allegations are patently false or motivated. This was considered necessary to prevent blackmail of public servants from discharging their official functions and common citizens faced with threat of jail and surrender of civil rights.
What prompted the court to think on these lines was the glaring misuse of law over the decades. The Bench of Justices Adarsh K Goel and UU Lalit relied on data supplied by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) to draw its conclusion. In 2015, out of the total complaints investigated by police under the Act, closure reports were filed in almost 16 per cent cases. Out of the total cases handled by courts under the Act in the same year, more than 75 per cent cases ended up in acquittal, withdrawal or compounding of cases.
The crime in India-2016 statistics compiled by the NCRB drew similar results. In 2016 alone, under the Act, 5,347 cases were found to be false against the Scheduled Castes and 912 against Scheduled Tribes. The Annual Report 2016-17 of the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, the Government of India compiled figures to show that in year 2015, a total of 15,638 cases under the Act were decided by courts across the country of which a whopping 11,024 cases resulted in acquittal or discharge and only 4,119 cases resulted in conviction.
Taking note of the above reports, the Bench said, “It has been judicially acknowledged that there are instances of abuse of the Act by vested interests against political opponents in Panchayat, municipal or other elections; to settle private civil disputes arising out of property, monetary disputes, employment disputes and seniority disputes.”
The court noted yet another trend that a large number of complaints were directed against public servants, judicial or quasi-judicial officers with an “oblique motive” of vested interests.
The Bench held, “The underprivileged need to be protected against any atrocities to give effect to the constitutional ideals. At the same time, the said Act cannot be converted into a charter for exploitation or oppression by any unscrupulous person or by police for any extraneous reasons against other citizens. Any harassment of an innocent citizen, irrespective of caste or religion, is against the guarantee of the Constitution. This court must enforce this guarantee. Law should not result in caste hatred.”
The court was aware that it cannot legislate and respected the legislative wisdom behind creating such an legislation. Even Parliament debated the misuse of the Act in 2015 but left it to the affected citizens to invoke suitable remedy under Indian Penal Code once the charge is proved false. But the court viewed the case from the standpoint of personal liberty of citizens under Article 21, which the court is bound to adjudicate upon. While perpetrators should not go scot-free, the Bench added that no law can mandate arrest of an innocent by limiting even his pre-arrest bail.
Parliament had in 2015 amended the 1989 Act to include new offences and create special courts to exclusively try cases under the Act and ensure expeditious justice to SCs and STs. The amended provisions included acts of tonsuring of head, moustache, garlanding with chappals, denying access to irrigation facilities or forest rights, dispose or carry human or animal carcasses, dig graves, manual scavenging, dedicating a SC/ST women as devadasi, abusing in the name of caste, perpetrating witchcraft, social or economic boycott, preventing SC/ST candidates from filing nomination to contest elections among others. In addition, IPC offences against SC/ST members like hurt, grievous hurt, intimidation, kidnapping etc. that attracted less than ten years of imprisonment were also made offences punishable under the Act. Till then, the Act punished only those offences punishable with more than 10 years under IPC.
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