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SC/ST Act: Supreme Court allows Centre’s review against dilution of Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989

A three-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court today allowed the Review Petition filed by the Central government against a March 2018 decision of a Division Bench that had effectively diluted the provisions of the SC/ST Act.

The judgment was rendered by a three-Judge Bench of Justices Arun Mishra, MR Shah, and BR Gavai. The Centre had assailed the decision of the Supreme Court in Subhash Kashinath Mahajan v. State of Maharashtra, by which it had diluted some of the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 [SC/ST Act].

The Bench also observed that the directions issued by the Division Bench were not called for, and were not within the parameters of Article 142 of the Constitution of India. Justice Arun Mishra went on to state,

"The Court cannot do what cannot be done by the Legislature."

Directions 3, 4, and 5 as laid down in the judgment stand set aside after today's judgment. The amendment to the Act had already nullified the effect of directions 3 and 4. These directions read as follows:

iii) In view of acknowledged abuse of law of arrest in cases under the Atrocities Act, arrest of a public servant can only be after approval of the appointing authority and of a non-public servant after approval by the S.S.P. which may be granted in appropriate cases if considered necessary for reasons recorded. Such reasons must be scrutinized by the Magistrate for permitting further detention.

iv) To avoid false implication of an innocent, a preliminary enquiry may be conducted by the DSP concerned to find out whether the allegations make out a case under the Atrocities Act and that the allegations are not frivolous or motivated.

v) Any violation of direction (iii) and (iv) will be actionable by way of disciplinary action as well as contempt.

In judgment passed last year, the Bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit had introduced safeguards to prevent the misuse of the SC/ST Act against officers who deal with the complaints under the Act in their official capacity.

It has held that prior sanction of the appointing authority is required for prosecuting officers for acts done by them in their official capacity. The judgment states,

" arrest may be effected, if an accused person is a public servant, without written permission of the appointing authority and if such a person is not a public servant, without written permission of the Senior Superintendent of Police of the District."

This judgment had caused a major uproar across the country and was protested against by members of the SC/ST communities.

The Centre then moved the Supreme Court, immediately seeking a review of this judgment. A hearing was held on April 3, however, the Court had refused to stay the operation of the judgment then.

In August 2018, Parliament brought in an amendment to the Act that effectively reversed the decision of the Supreme Court. However, the validity of the amendment was also assailed in the Supreme Court.

The Review Petition eventually came up for hearing before the special three-Judge Bench, which reserved its decision in the matter on September 18. On that date, Justice Mishra had observed that India had still not emerged from the clutches of the social evil of untouchability.

The Court had also asked the Centre why the authorities had failed to address the plight of manual scavengers, who are dying on a daily basis, particularly owing to the lack of protective gear.

What is the SC/ST Act?

The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was brought into law to prevent crimes against people belonging to lower castes and tribes in India.

The act was passed as it was felt that the existing legal framework did not provide adequate protection to lower castes.

The law allows for instant arrests, severely limits opportunities for bail and the automatic registration of criminal cases against anyone accused of committing an offence against a member of a lower caste or tribe.

It also prescribes several other stringent measures such as the attachment and forfeiture of the property of an accused.

The act also allows public servants to be prosecuted for neglect of duties - a significant step given that many lower caste people allege that their complaints were often ignored by officials who belonged to the same communities as those they were accusing.

It was amended in 2015 to cover newer forms of discrimination and crimes against lower caste communities

Why do Dalits need protection?

Dalits are some of India's most downtrodden citizens because of an unforgiving Hindu caste hierarchy that condemns them to the bottom of the ladder.

Despite laws that protect them, discrimination remains a daily reality for the Dalit population, thought to number around 200 million.

Traditionally, they have been segregated from the upper castes and are not allowed to attend the same temples, schools or even drink from the same cups as upper caste people. They do not get equal access to education or jobs, and are often victims of exploitation, abuse and violence.

References- BBC World, Bar & Bench

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