- The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 also known as the SC/ST Act, protects marginalized communities from discrimination and atrocities
- The Act defines 22 offences linked to various patterns or behaviors that result in criminal offences and violate the SC/ST community's self-respect and esteem.
- Denial of economic, democratic, and social rights, as well as discrimination, exploitation, and abuse of the legal system, are few examples.
- The SC/ST Act protects social disabilities such as denial of access to certain places and the inability to use a customary passage, personal atrocities such as forced drinking or eating of inedible food, sexual exploitation, injury, and other forms of exploitation.
- Section 14 of the SC/ST Act provides for a Special Court for a speedy trial to try offences under this Act in each district.
- The Supreme Court just upheld the Act's constitutional legality on February 10th, 2020.
When all of the provisions of the Constitution failed to bring equality to Indian society and to ban the practice of untouchability, a new law was needed, and the Untouchability (Offenses) Act of 1955 was enacted, but the act's flaws and loopholes prompted the government to propose a redesign of this law. The Act was renamed the Protection of Civil Rights Act. Despite the government's repeated initiatives to close the gap between the lower and high castes, they remained a vulnerable group. Recognizing the shortcomings, Parliament enacted the "Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and Rules, 1995" to address them.
The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 also known as the SC/ST Act, protects marginalized communities from discrimination and atrocities. The act was enacted on September 9, 1989, and the rules for the same were notified on March 31, 1995.
OBJECTIVES OF THE ACT
- To help the SCs and STs improve their socioeconomic situation.
- To eliminate offences involving ill-behavior directed against SCs and STs that undermine their self-esteem.
- To stop people from being denied their economic, democratic, and social rights.
- To protect them against social disabilities such as being denied entrance to specific locations, as well as personal atrocities such as forced drinking, eating inedible food, injury, and sexual exploitation.
- To assist them in remaining free of malicious prosecution, economic exploitation, and political constraints.
- To bring about justice through proactive efforts, providing a dignified living.
MEANING OF ATROCITIES
Before the Atrocities Act of 1989, the term "atrocity" had never been used. The term "atrocity" is widely used to describe crimes committed against members of the SC and ST communities. It describes someone who is brutal and harsh. The term 'crime,' on the other hand, refers to an illegal act. It also refers to crimes that include elements of pain in one way or another.
Section 4 of the Act outlines the penalties for atrocity crimes. If an upper caste member commits an offence against a lower caste member, that person will be punished under section 4 of the act. Sections 3 (1) I to (xv) and 3 (2) I to (viii) outline various heinous crimes and give various punishments and remedies.
Section 3(1) defines 15 different acts, such as force-feeding of injurious substances, threatening to vote, contaminating commonly used water, etc., punishable by a minimum punishment of six months in prison, with a maximum punishment of five years in jail and a fine.
Section 3 (2) lists major offences such as creating false evidence and causing the execution of an innocent SC/ST, among others, with penalties ranging from seven years to life in prison or death. The crimes can only be committed by those who are neither SCs nor STs.
Any public servant who is not a SC or ST who intentionally neglects duties under this Act would be sentenced to a minimum of six months and a maximum of one year in prison. Section 7 permits the seizure of the captive's property in favor of the state. The property might be attached during the trial and then surrendered after the conviction.
Anticipatory bail provisions under Section 438 of the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973 do not apply to any case involving the arrest of a person under this Act, as defined in Section 18.
This section's constitutionality was questioned in light of Article 21. It was determined that S.18 constituted a legal procedure and hence did not violate Article 21. The Mumbai High Court granted anticipatory relief on the grounds that the allegation did not establish a prima facie case under the Act. When the guilty individual under this Act is over the age of eighteen, Section 360 of the Code and Probation of Offenders Act 1958 does not apply.
PROCESS OF SEEKING REMEDY UNDER THE ACT
- Victims can report an offence to the nearby police station orally or in writing, signed by the victim, or delivered through registered mail to the appropriate police station.
- Any competent officer not below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police should conduct the on-the-spot inquiry. Following that, a list of victims is compiled, as well as the number of people who have died and the amount of property that has been damaged.
- After preparing the report, the investigating officer submits it to the Superintendent of Police, who then forwards it to the Director-General or Commissioner of Police. Following that, the charge sheet must be filed in Special Court within 60 days by the Inspector in Charge of the police station with jurisdiction.
- If the charge sheet is not filed within the 60-day time limit before the special court, the explanation for the delay shall be given in support of the charge sheet.
State governments have established Special Courts to ensure speedy trials. They've been set up in practically every district under this Act. It has the authority to establish a Special Court of Session.
The State Government shall appoint a Public Prosecutor or appoint an advocate for each Special Court by notification in the Official Gazette. For the purpose of handling cases in that court, the nominated person must have been in practice for at least 7 years.
SC-ST Amendment Act, 2018
On August 9, 2018, Parliament enacted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2018.
The following are the salient aspects of the SC/ST Amendment Act 2018:
- Section 18 A of the SC-ST Act makes it illegal to undertake a preliminary inquiry before filing an FIR.
- Anticipatory bail shall not be granted to anyone who has been accused of atrocities against SC-ST people.
- The SC-ST Act empowers the Investigation Officer (IO) to arrest the accused person or persons without the need for prior consent from a higher authority.
ISSUE OF ANTICIPATORY BAIL
The SC-ST Amendment Act 2018 has been challenged in court, with the petitioners claiming that the act violates Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Indian Constitution. The petitioners sought that the IO's authority of arrest be exercised only when all of the protections stated in Sections 41 and 41Aof the Cr. P.C has been met, such as:
- Credible information and
- Just and reasonable procedure
In March 2018, the Supreme Court raised concern about the Act's misuse and ruled against the law's automatic arrest. It also included an anticipatory bail provision. The Supreme Court held that public officials cannot be prosecuted without the appointing authority's permission and that citizens should only be arrested after a legal investigation. This sparked major protests in five states, resulting in the deaths of 11 people. In this case, the government filed a review petition. "Our goal is to safeguard innocents, and we have not diluted the law in any way," the high court stated today, rejecting the government's request to have the earlier verdict reversed.
Since the Act's enactment, there has been a disagreement on whether a judge should order bail before arresting a person, notably with reference to Section 18. The Supreme Court issued its verdict in March 2018 to provide clarification on the interpretation of the aforementioned clause. A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court held in Subhash Kashinath Mahajan v. the State of Maharashtra that the exclusion of anticipatory bail provisions of the CrPC (by Section 18 of the Act) did not constitute an absolute bar to the grant of bail where the court could see that the allegations of atrocities or violations of the Act were false.
What followed were massive rallies around the country, many of which had government backing, and soon, with the use of violence in protest becoming frequent. To limit the damage, the government had to introduce new amendments to the act that nullified the effect of the judgment. As a result, the provision of anticipatory bail was removed, and the act's position was returned to its original one. The Supreme Court just upheld the Act's constitutional legality on February 10th, 2020.
Every individual in India is guaranteed life and personal liberty under the Indian Constitution. The benefits of the Act surpass the drawbacks. Some non-societal members try to take advantage of the law by attempting to involve someone innocent in these situations. These fraud cases result in significant defamation of the wrongly accused person, with long-term consequences.
“Expecting the law to deliver justice to victims of caste violence is rather an impractical solution to a recurring problem,” Dr. B.R. Ambedkaronce said, until there is a paradigm shift in how people think about caste-based discrimination, the Indian Constitution's promise of access to justice will remain a distant dream.