Misuse of law
It is also traumatic when innocents are framed by those to protect whom a law is enacted
Recognising the continuous misuse of laws pertaining to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, the Supreme Court has done well to declare null and void the automatic arrest of people based on complaints. From now on, no person, rightly/wrongly accused under the said Act, can be put in jail without the police first conducting a preliminary inquiry, which must be concluded within a week of the complaint. Further, action can be initiated only after officers have a written authorisation from a higher authority (of the rank of a Senior Superintendent of Police or Additional Commissioner of Police) and in cases where public servants are involved, authorisation must come from the appointing authority. Importantly, the top court also walked the extra mile to safeguard the interests of innocents often caught in the trap of the draconian rules of the Act, which had no provision for anticipatory bail. Removing the stipulation of Section 18 of the Act, which denied an accused anticipatory bail, the court has ensured a fair procedure for trial. The court's directive has come in the wake of many false complaints being launched against innocent people who were quickly arrested on account of the allegations. Undoubtedly, the Act has been used, or should we say misused, by many to settle personal and political scores.
The Court ruling is the second instance of such judicial intervention in recent times with the first being that to prevent the misuse of the provision (498-A) of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. The apex court had stayed the immediate arrest of the family and the husband on the mere complaint of the wife under the dowry Act against the backdrop of burgeoning cases of misuse of the Act's provisions. However, the top court is in the process of deciding on the matter afresh including revisiting its own earlier order. As per National Crime Records Bureau figures, in 2013, more than 4.6 lakh cases were registered under the Section, and more than 46,000 ended in acquittals/withdrawals. Just over 7,000 cases led to convictions.
Similarly, according to NCRB data, in 2015, around 16 per cent cases of the total cases filed under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, were false. Further, 75 per cent of the cases disposed by the court ended up in acquittal or withdrawal. Conviction rates have really been low. It was almost three decades ago when in a bid to protect the interests of the weak, the Government allowed them to enjoy special rights by giving them legal protection and putting in place a stringent law that had the noblest of intentions: To ensure that culprits of atrocities against SC/ST are not let off scot-free. In fact, in 2015, giving more teeth to the Act, loopholes were plugged through amendments to the legislation, which included new offences in its ambit, increase in existing quantum of relief and stricter penalties for those found guilty. To say that a law alone would suffice to root out social evils from society, however, would be naïve. As would be an assertion that in an increasingly fractured and adversarial society some of those whom the law seeks to protect would not misuse it.
With the changing realities of time, it is almost a necessity that laws rightly drafted with harsh provisions to provide particular protections to specific (unempowered groups) be periodically reviewed so as to tackle misuse and/or any other issues that emerge. To this end, the top court must be applauded for striking a balance between the essential task of protecting the interests of the underprivileged and while also ensuring the rights of an accused. Punitive action for demonstrably false allegations may also be considered.
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