On March 20, 2018, the Supreme Court passed an order which was aimed at ending the alleged ‘misuse’ of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. In its order, the Court said that a public servant can now only be arrested under the provision of the Act, if the authority which was responsible for appointing them, approves of it. And in case the person who is an accused is not a public servant, their arrest can only be made after the superintendent of police of the district provides permission.
The SC also said that it would now be possible to grant anticipatory bail to the accused if the case is discovered to be ‘mala fide’ or there is no prima facie case.
This order is seen by many as a ‘dilution’ of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
After this order was passed there was a huge public outcry from various quarters. The order of the Supreme Court was criticised by intellectuals and politicians alike for ‘diluting’ the Act concerned.
In protest against the order by the Supreme Court, Dalit groups called for an all-India bandh to be observed on April 2. The impact of the bandh was felt nationwide, with the intensity of the violence and number of fatalities different in various states
In Punjab the state government decided to suspend all public transport services for that day, anticipating violence. Mobile internet services were unavailable and schools were closed. The protests turned violent in some states and resulted in the deaths of nine people, seven of whom were Dalits. One died in Rajasthan, two in Uttar Pradesh and six in Madhya Pradesh. Clashes were reported between police personnel and protesters in Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan.
The act was first passed in the year 1989 by the Rajiv Gandhi government and was amended in 2015 and is now called the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015.
When the Act first came into effect in 1989, it was stated in its Statement of Objects and Reasons: “Despite various measures to improve the socio-economic conditions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, they remain vulnerable. They are denied a number of civil rights. They are subjected to various offences, indignities, humiliations and harassment… A special legislation to check and deter crimes against them committed by the non-scheduled Castes and non-scheduled tribes has, therefore, become necessary.”
While passing the order the bench observed, “It is necessary to express concern that working of the Atrocities Act should not result in perpetuating casteism which can have an adverse impact on integration of the society and the constitutional values.”
The bench of Justice Uday Umesh Lalit and Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel said that the guidelines have been issued since the Act has been wrongfully misused to ‘blackmail’ people for vested interests.
From 2007 to 2016, the average conviction rates of crimes against SCs is 28.8 and against STs is 25.2 While the average conviction rates for all crimes under the Indian Penal Code is 42.5.
In 2016, the conviction rate of cases of atrocities against Scheduled Castes is 25.7, while for crimes against STs it is 20.8.
The Narendra Modi government submitted a review petition in the Supreme Court on Monday. Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “Surely senior lawyers of the government in the apex court will argue this matter with all their legal preparations and authority that this judgment needs to be reconsidered.” Today, the SC agreed to reconsider the order it had passed last month regarding the Act after 10 days.
Across the political spectrum, disagreements of the political parties with the SC’s order was made public.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi had tweeted:
The SC/ST Act is the most important instrument to prevent atrocities on Dalits/Adivasis.
A complicit Modi Govt failed to defend it in the Supreme Court.
The PM must not abdicate his duty in favour of the anti-Dalit mindset of the BJP/RSS.https://t.co/ytQPCNJLkv
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) March 21, 2018
Political parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Lok Janshakti Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), among others, did not agree with the Supreme Court order.