The emergence of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) (PoA) Act in 1989 proved the ineffectiveness of the Untouchablity (Offences) Act (later named as Protection of Civil Rights Act 1976) which was introduced with an objective of eradicating inherent discriminatory attitudes towards the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The very existence of this law, with its graphically detailed clauses, is an acknowledgement by the state that very specific kind of barbarities are committed against the SC and ST people. Although, figures of atrocities on Dalits in last decades question this constitutional framework of justice, the recent dilution of the SC/ST PoA Act 1989 by the Supreme Court should be seen in the backdrop of the growing atrocities on Dalits and Adivasis and it undermines their struggles for dignity. Contrary to the allegation of “abuse of law” by the Supreme Court, official data hints at a weak implementation of the SC/ST PoA Act instead of its misuse, with a strikingly low rate of convictions and increasing momentum of crimes. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data reveals that under the SC/ST PoA Act 1989, while the charge-sheeting rate is 77 percent, the conviction rate is only 15.4 percent. Over the last ten years (2007-2017), there has been a 66% growth in crimes against Dalits. A report by the Human Rights Watch titled “Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India’s Untouchables” had noted that “Dalits are frequently the victims of discriminatory treatment in the administration of justice. Prosecutors and judges fail to vigorously and faithfully pursue complaints brought by Dalits, which is evidenced by the high rate of acquittals in such cases”.
It is quite obvious where the court’s sympathies lie. On the one hand, no effort is made to find out the impact of the law in society, whether it has actually reduced the number of atrocities, whether more atrocities are being brought to light and prosecuted and whether oppressed classes feel safe and secure as a result of the law. On the other, it is assumed that it is the law itself that is not promoting constitutional values of fraternity and integration of the society, and therefore needs to be given an interpretation as such. What non-Dalits or upper castes should do to promote fraternity is not clear from the judgment. Rather, it casts aspersions on Dalit victims saying that they file fake cases either out of vengeance or due to the greed of monetary compensation. This is contrary to Section 15 of the PoA which specifically mandates that a victim is to be treated with “fairness, respect and dignity”.
The Supreme Court simply cherry-picked data and uses some dubious reasoning to effectively gut the PoA Act, 1989. Its “directions”, whether intended or not, make it virtually impossible for any complaint to be registered against those who have committed an atrocity against Dalits. The Supreme Court is concerned with the “fear” of “false accusations” and “allegations” against “innocent people” who are at the mercy of “unscrupulous” elements out to trap and “stigmatise” them through arrest and denial of bail by filing cases of atrocity against these “unsuspecting” persons. The unsuspecting, innocent persons are persons belonging to non-SC castes in positions of authority/power either as public servants or employers. The unscrupulous elements are all persons belonging to the Scheduled castes holding primarily semi-skilled jobs in the cases discussed. In its order, the apex court had directed that public servants can only be arrested with the written permission of their appointing authority. In the case of private employees, it had said, the senior superintendent of police (SSP) concerned would have to allow it. As such, the apex court held that a preliminary inquiry should also be conducted before the FIR is registered to check whether the case falls within the parameters of the Atrocities Act or whether it was frivolous or motivated. The court also held that anticipatory bail should be allowed if the accused is able to prove that the complaint was malafide. It will mean that victims of atrocity crimes will now think twice before filing cases because neither will an FIR be filed immediately nor will the perpetrator be arrested. It is strange that the court did not realise the fact that for the underprivileged, registration of an FIR itself is a huge challenge as police officers routinely refuse to do so. A study, by the Economic & Political Weekly, had noted that nearly 50% of cases filed under the Act do not go to court and are closed by the police. It had also alluded to there being a “caste bias among the investigation officers”.
This is not the first time the Supreme Court has pushed its own notions of criminal justice onto a wider population in this arbitrary manner. The same bench (which diluted the SC/ST PoA Act, 1989) tried to gut Section 498-A of the IPC in a similar manner imposing ridiculous procedures to allegedly deter “false complaints” but in effect ensure no one would ever be prosecuted for an offense under Section 498-A.