Fewer convictions in SC/ST cases due to ‘shoddy investigations’: Supreme Court
Atrocities against members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/STs) are “not a thing of the past”, lamented the Supreme Court on Friday, as it underscored that the conviction rates in SC/ST cases were low in India not due to the falsity of charges but because of shoddy investigations.
A bench of justices Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and BV Nagarathna highlighted that several members of the SC/ST community “face insurmountable hurdles in accessing justice from the stage of filing the complaint to the conclusion of the trial” and that they “specifically suffer on account of procedural lapses in the criminal justice system”.
It noted that due to the fear of retribution from members of upper caste groups, ignorance, or police apathy, many SC/ST victims do not register complaints in the first place and when they do so, the police officials are reluctant to register complaints or do not record allegations accurately.
“Eventually, if the case does get registered, the victims and witnesses are vulnerable to intimidation, violence, and social and economic boycott. Further, many perpetrators of caste-based atrocities get away scot free due to shoddy investigations and the negligence of prosecuting advocates,” rued the bench. “This results in low conviction rates under the SC/ST Act, giving rise to the erroneous perception that cases registered under the Act are false and that it is being misused. On the contrary, the reality is that many acquittals are a result of improper investigation and prosecution of crime, leading to insufficient evidence,” it added.
Crimes registered under the SC/ST Act saw an increase of 9.4% (for SC) and 9.3% (for ST) in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). A total of 50,291 cases were registered for crimes against SCs last year. The number was 45,961 in 2019. Meanwhile, 8,272 cases were registered for crimes against STs in 2020 as against 7,570 cases in 2019. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar recorded the highest rate of crimes against SCs. Kerala, Rajasthan and Telangana recorded the highest rate of crimes against STs. Only 216 cases from the 50,291 crimes against SCs in 2020 resulted in convictions. A total of 3,192 cases resulted in acquittals.
The bench expressed its views on the implementation of the SC/ST Act while setting aside the bail granted to one Satyanarayan in 2019 in a case of murder of a member of SC/ST community. The appeal against grant of bail was filed in the top court on the grounds that the Punjab & Haryana high court passed the order without hearing the complainant or witness even though the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act) makes it mandatory.
Noting that all the courts must strictly follow the procedure mandated under the SC/ST Act, the SC held that a victim of a caste-based crime must be given due notice and an opportunity to be heard whenever proceedings relating to bail or trial are taken up.
The court cited Section 15A of the SC/ST Act to point out that the legislation makes it mandatory to hear a victim or complainant when the courts hear the petitions by the accused.
“Atrocities against members of the SCs and STs are not a thing of the past. They continue to be a reality in our society even today. Hence the statutory provisions which have been enacted by Parliament as a measure of protecting the constitutional rights of persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes must be complied with and enforced conscientiously.