What is the controversy over the SC/ST Act?
The Supreme Court on March 20, 2018, decided that there are limitations regarding arrests in cases registered under the Schedules Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. It also ruled that “there is no absolute bar against grant of anticipatory bail in cases under the Atrocities Act if no prima facie case is made out or where on judicial scrutiny the complaint is found to be prima facie mala fide.”
Amid concerns that the SC’s decision would dilute the law contrary to the intention of legislature that passed it and widespread violent protests, the government filed a petition seeking a review of the decision. The court on April 3 refused to stay the ruling but said it would consider the Centre’s petition in detail.
The Act was conceived as a strong safeguard against castes and tribes that have been historically exploited and abused. Emancipation of the Dalits and tribal communities are also important electoral promises used by various political parties to garner votes in the elections. Dalits are an important segment of the population in many states and make up nearly 200 million of the country’s total population of 1.3 billion.
Any perceived dilution of the safeguards provided in the SC/ST Act can lead to charged emotions and expression of anger as was evident in the protests of April 2. The violence that took place during the protests left 10 people dead in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Those opposed to the SC’s March 20 ruling, including the government, have expressed the apprehension that the decision will lead to practically taking away the effectiveness of the act. Opposition parties have used the opportunity to say that the Narendra Modi government is “anti-Dalit” and that it did not argue the matter before the top court in favour of retaining the inherent powers of the act that the bench of Justices Adarsh K Goel and UU Lalit imposed limitations on.
The government has countered the opposition’s argument by reeling out facts and figures regarding its welfare schemes that benefit people from the backward classes. The government said that it made provisions of the act more stringent in 2015 by bringing in amendments to the law.
It has also argued in its defence that the matter in the SC was between a private individual and the state of Maharashtra, allowing it the scope for limited intervention and “only some oral submissions”. It has argued that the Centre was never made a party in the case, formally.
In the review, the minister of social justice and empowerment, on the advice of the law ministry, has said that the court has imposed restrictions on arrest and denying anticipatory bail by reading Article 21 to the detriment of Article 17. While Article 21 guarantees the right to life and personal liberty, Article 17 abolishes untouchability in all its forms. It has also argued that the conviction rate in cases registered under the act is under 25 per cent, opposing the argument that the act is often misused.
A number of experts have said that the March 20 judgement does not dilute the act but simply upholds the constitutional safeguards available to those who are falsely accused of an offence. The SC in its April 3 hearing said the judgement is only meant to safeguard the rights of innocent people without affecting the rights of the marginal communities. The court also said those who protested on April 2 were probably misled by vested interests.
Experts on the other side have argued that registration of FIRs under the act is difficult and the poor conviction rate shows lack of proper investigation. They also claim that the judgement could effectively encourage lower level police officials to not register cases, even more.
The matter will come up for hearing sometime after 10 days from the April 3 order.