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SC/ST Act Amendment Bill in Parliament: Modi govt looks to turn around Supreme Court's order as Dalit groups threaten to launch strike

The Narendra Modi-led NDA government has decided to bring a constitutional Amendment Bill in Parliament to restore the original provisions of the SC/ST Act, amid growing pressure from alliance partners such as Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Ramdas Athawale's Republican Party of India (RPI). The bill which was cleared by the Union Cabinet on Wednesday will be tabled on Thursday during the ongoing Monsoon Session of the Parliament.

 SC/ST Act Amendment Bill in Parliament: Modi govt looks to turn around Supreme Courts order as Dalit groups threaten to launch strike

File image of the Dalit protest. Reuters

The amendment, if passed by the Parliament will, in effect, nullify the Supreme Court's judgment pronounced on 20 March which had diluted the Act to bar the immediate arrest of an accused, stating that an arrest would only follow a preliminary enquiry by the probing agency or the police to check if the case fell within the ambit of the Act, or it was frivolous or motivated. The judges noted that there had been “instances of abuse” of the Act by “vested interests” for political or personal reasons. However, the judgment was met with nationwide agitation from various Dalit groups which claimed that the dilution of the Act will lead to more discrimination and crime against the backward community.

Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan gave an ultimatum to the Modi government to bring an amendment bill by 9 August as the Dalit groups have threatened to launch a massive nationwide agitation on that day. Paswan's son and Lok Sabha MP Chirag Paswan demanded that if the government fails to bring an amendment bill by 9 August, then the monsoon session should be curtailed and an Ordinance should be brought in to restore the Act.

The Amendment Bill, accessed by CNN News18, seeks to insert Section 18A in the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. According to this new Section, a preliminary enquiry won't be there required to conduct a preliminary inquiry before an FIR is to be registered. According to the Bill, any provision for conducting preliminary inquiry will delay the investigation and thus filing of the chargesheet.

The Supreme Court in its judgement had also laid down that in cases of public servants, prior approval of the appointing authority shall be required to make an arrest and for private individuals, a sanction from the SSP was mandated. But the govt's Bill seeks to do away with these directions of the Court, and says that "arrest, if necessary, of a person shall not require any approval". The proposed Section also moves to do away with a provision for pre-arrest bail which was sought to be introduced in the statute.

"The provision of Section 438 of the CrPC (anticipatory bail) shall not apply to a case under this Act, notwithstanding any judgment or any order of any court," states the proposed law, CNN News18 reported.

Thus, the Amendment Bill seeks to insert three new clauses to Section 18 of the original Act. The first stating the purposes of the Act that, a “preliminary enquiry shall not be required for registration of a First Information Report (FIR) against any person.” Second that "the arrest of a person accused of having committed an offence under the Act would not require any approval", while third says that the provisions of Section 438 of the Code of Criminal Procedure — which deals with anticipatory bail — shall not apply to a case under this Act, “notwithstanding any judgment or order of any Court".

On 2 April, violence during a nationwide bandh left at least nine people dead and hundreds injured. Later, the Centre had filed a review petition against the ruling. However, the Supreme Court refused to stay its ruling and asked all parties to submit detailed replies, leading to the demand from Dalit groups that the government introduce an ordinance or an Amendment Bill to restore the earlier provisions. Protests intensified when the government appointed Justice AK Goel, who authored the 20 March verdict, as the Chairman of the National Green Tribunal on the day of his retirement from the Court.

The SC/ST Act was originally passed in 1955 by the Parliament as the Untouchability (Offences) Act. It was renamed as the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act in 1976 but the law was considered ineffective in 1980s and replaced with the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 1989. In 2015, more offences were brought under its ambit by including acts like tonsuring of head, moustache of backward caste people by upper-castes as a criminal activitiy.

The Supreme Court in its March ruling had said the the aim of the Act was not to prevent the government officials from dispensing their duties in fair manner but to make sure that it was not used as a tool of blackmail or vengeance, according to an India Today report.

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Updated Date: Aug 02, 2018 14:08:01 IST