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Supreme Court's SC/ST Act judgment: Legislative history of India's attempts (and failures) to protect the downtrodden

After widespread protests over the dilution of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (hereinafter the Atrocities Act), the Supreme Court will hear the Centre’s review petition on the matter on Tuesday.

The Centre had on Monday moved the Supreme Court seeking a review of its recent verdict on the SC/ST Act. The hearing is likely to take place at 2 pm on Tuesday. Attorney-General KK Venugopal is reported to have requested the hearing to be held at that time.

In the verdict given on 20 March, the court had diluted the stringent provisions under the Atrocities Act which mandated the immediate arrest of the accused.

The Centre in its petition has insisted that despite various measures to improve the socio-economic conditions of SC/ST community, they still remained vulnerable. "They are denied a number of civil rights. They are subjected to various offences, indignities, humiliations and harassment.... It has escaped the consideration of this court that contrary to the assertion of any misuse of the 1989 Act, the facts and data have demonstrated a weak implementation of the said Act, thereby endorsing the requirement for a strict interpretation of the deterrent provisions contained therein".

Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955

The Centre's stance is backed up by legislative action over the past decades. Despite the Constitution abolishing untouchability and providing protection to the SC/ST community, crimes against them refuse to die down. To prevent this, the government brought in the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955 which was later renamed as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 (hereinafter the PCR Act).

 Supreme Courts SC/ST Act judgment: Legislative history of Indias attempts (and failures) to protect the downtrodden

Members of Dalit community stage a protest during 'Bharat Bandh' call against the alleged dilution of SC/ST Act. PTI

A study by the National Law School, Bengaluru however concluded that the legislation was unclear in the goals it wanted to achieve — "whether the Act exists merely to remove specific disabilities symptomatic of untouchability or whether it makes a concerted effort to strike at the root of the problem. If the stated goal is the eradication of untouchability as a social evil... the Act must deal with societal structures that perpetuate oppression. The legislation has to ensure a greater role by the State, not limited to the punishment of individuals."

It is thus clear that PCR Act is concerned more with untouchability. Indeed the study noted that "it has a different scope than the Atrocities Act, since it focuses on removal of disabilities rather than the punishment of atrocities". However the problems of the SC/ST community go beyond untouchability as they have been the victims of heinous crimes such as murders and rapes.

SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989

The PCR Act was thus not enough and the government attempted to fill this gap in the law by enacting the Atrocities Act in 1989. The Act was brought into force on 30 January, 1990 in order to check and deter crimes against people belonging to the SC/ST community by people belonging to other communities. This Act extended the positive discrimination in favour of SCs and STs to the
field of criminal law in as much as they prescribe penalties that are more stringent than the corresponding offences under Indian Penal Code (IPC) and other laws. Special Courts have been established in major states for speedy trial of cases registered exclusively under this law.

The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Atrocities Act states that there were increasing number of attacks on Scheduled Castes and Tribes and commission of atrocities like making them eat human excreta were on the rise. Since existing laws like the PCR Act and the IPC were found to be inadequate to curb these grave crimes, the new legislation was enacted.

Section 3 of the new law lists out the various acts that constitute atrocities. The section offers protection and remedies against the following offences. It recognises social disabilities (denial of access to places), personal atrocities (forceful drinking or eating of inedible and obnoxious substances, parading people naked, sexual exploitation of women etc), atrocities affecting property (wrongful occupation of land, dispossession from land etc). It also recognises atrocities by malicious prosecution and causing political and economic disability.

The Act was however unable to achieve its goals. This was noted in the Statement of Objects and Reasons of a 2013 amendment bill to the Atrocities Act which said, 'despite the deterrent provisions made in the Act, atrocities continue at a disturbing level. Adequate justice also remains difficult for a majority of the victims and the witnesses, as they face hurdles virtually at every stage of the legal process. The implementation of the Act suffers due to procedural hurdles, procedural delays, delays in trial and low conviction rate. Further, certain forms of atrocities, known to be occurring in recent years, are not covered by the Act.'

The amendment with the required changes was brought into effect in 2016 but was still not enough to curb crimes against SCs and STs. The Bombay High Court in 2017 noted that 'there has been a failure on the part of the authorities in complying with the provisions of the Act and Rules. The laudable object with which the Act had been made is defeated by the indifferent attitude of the authorities. The constitutional goal of equality for all citizens can be achieved only when the rights of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are protected. The abundant material on record proves that the authorities concerned are guilty of not enforcing the provisions of the Act. The travails of the members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes continue unabated."

It is thus quite clear that repeated legislation has been unable to solve the problems faced by the SC/ST community. As such when the apex court further decreases the protections afforded to them, it is not hard to see why they have taken to the streets to plead their case.

With inputs from PTI

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Updated Date: Apr 04, 2018 09:38:59 IST