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Supreme Court says Dalit protests misled, declines to stay its order on SC/ST Act

The government filed the petition on Monday against the top court’s order that banned automatic arrests and registration of criminal cases under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2018 23:40 IST
Bhadra Sinha
Bhadra Sinha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
SC/ST Act,Supreme Court,SC order on SC/ST Act
Dalit activist and supporters hold placards and raise slogans during a protest march against the alleged dilution of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Act in Mumbai on Monday.(PTI Photo)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to put in abeyance its judgment banning automatic arrests without prior permissions for offences under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, saying its March 20 order only meant to safeguard innocent people without affecting the rights of the marginalised communities.

The court, however, said it would consider the arguments against its judgment from all parties involved at the next hearing that will be scheduled sometime after 10 days.

The bench of justices AK Goel and UU Lalit was hearing a review petition filed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government a day after nine people were killed in violent protests in several parts of the country, prompting leaders of all major political parties to call for an urgent need to reconsider what they described as a “dilution” of the act by the court.

On Tuesday, the court asked for written submissions from all parties involved and refused intervention by others who were not party to the case that originated in Maharashtra.

Dalits make up 200 million of the country’s 1.3 billion population and are a key demographic group in several states. Dalit leaders said their primarily grouse against the court’s verdict was the banning of the automatic arrest of the accused in cases under the Act that is meant to protect the community against discrimination and harassment.

Home minister Rajnath Singh reiterated on Tuesday that the government was “fully committed” to protecting the interests of the SC/ST community and the BJP “stands shoulder to shoulder” with Dalits. Congress president Rahul Gandhi also brought it up in a political rally in Karnataka, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of being silent on the issue.

Permission for an open court hearing was granted after Attorney General KK Venugopal urged the bench that protests had erupted in several states. Review petitions before the Supreme Court are normally decided within chambers by judges and open court hearings are allowed only in extraordinary circumstances.

But the court asked Venugopal and senior advocate Amarendra Sharan — who assisted the bench in delivering the main judgment — not to deviate from legal submissions. “We are not here to take note of what is happening outside the court,” Justice Goel said. “Those who are protesting have probably not even read what we have written. They do not even know. They are being misled by some vested interests,” he remarked. The judges said that the court was not against the Act, but wanted to ensure that innocent people were not punished.

In its order last month, the Supreme Court had said that several provisions of the Act were being misused.

“We have said that innocents should not be penalised. The innocents cannot be terrorised by the provisions of the SC/ST Act. We don’t want to deprive anyone from right to life and we make ourselves very clear that we are not against the Act or the complainants. We understand that SC/ST members have to be put on a higher pedestal. But, at the same time we need to protect constitutional rights of others. Innocents should not be falsely implicated or arrested,” Justice Goel said.

47,338 cases filed against SCs, STs in 2016
  • Union minister of state for home, Hansraj Gangaram Ahir, on Tuesday informed the Parliament that as many as 47,338 cases of crime against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were registered across the country in 2016
  • Citing latest data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Ahir said that a charge sheet was filed in 78.3% of the cases registered under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 2016.
  • The conviction rate was 25.8%, he said in reply to a written question. As many as 6,564 cases were registered over alleged crimes against the STs in 2016, the minister said.

The court also said that it did not intend to stop authorities from giving immediate relief, as the law envisages, to members of the SC/ST community who may be victims. Under the law, a complainant is entitled to get financial assistance if any atrocity is found to have been committed against them. Benefits are usually given at the time of filing of the FIR. Venugopal, however, argued that the judgment making it mandatory for a preliminary enquiry before registration of a case would delay the relief meant for the victims.

On another objection raised by the Centre that the judgment also barred registration of an FIR if offences under other penal codes or law, the court said there was no such prohibition. “...there is no dilution of any provision of the SC/ST Act relating to compensation, trial, punishment or otherwise,” read today’s order.

Venugopal stressed that the Centre was not questioning the direction enabling anticipatory bail to those accused under the Act but was only on the point of preliminary enquiry and prior sanction for arrest. He admitted that there were some instances of misuse.

The court said that its directions only stopped the police from abusing their power of arrest. “Abuse is not by the SC/ST members but by the police because there is no forum such as the court to ascertain the veracity of the allegations. What we have done is provided a filter,” the judges said in the order.

Sharan, arguing against the stay, told the bench that a patent error, and not law and order, could be the only ground to review an order.

First Published: Apr 03, 2018 15:28 IST