The Supreme Court of India and the Centre entered into an unprecedented argument on Thursday with both trying to convince each other on their respective stand on the SC/ST Act matter, a rare sight in the top court. The Centre, facing heat from the Dalit community, went on to tell the Supreme Court that it is usurping the powers of the legislature, while the top court reminded the former that it has settled a number of cases related to law of the country in the past.
Contending that the March 20 order amounted to law-making by courts, Attorney General K K Venugopal, representing the Centre, said: “For the last four decades, the court has believed that it has the power of legislature.” However, the top court bench disagreed.
The Attorney General further referred to the countrywide protests against the March 20 order. To this, Justice Lalit reminded the Centre that “our judgment did not ask anyone to commit any crime”.
The Attorney General also said that stringent provisions of the Act are crucial for the protection of sections subjected to inhuman treatment for years. To this, the bench
countered him and said: “We want to make it clear that we are also for the protection of these sections.”
The top court also rejected Venugopal’s demand to send the matter to a larger bench for review and requested the court to stay its judgment until then. The court has posted the matter to May 16 for its next hearing.
The Attorney General said in court that there have been at least three incidents in recent times where Dalit grooms were stopped from using horses. The bench countered Centre’s argument and said that this was happening because of inaction from the authorities. “For that you need to deliver immediate punishment… Why can’t you punish in a month or so?” Justice Goel asked.
Venugopal said that given the large size of the country, it’s difficult to deliver immediate punishment. “There lies the problem,” Justice Goel said, adding “perhaps social action is also required at the level of society (to stop caste discrimination). People have to learn to respect each other”.
The March 20 order, which triggered nationwide protests from the Dalit groups, laid down stringent safeguards, including provisions for anticipatory bail and “preliminary enquiry” by a DSP before registration of a case under the SC/ST Act. The court further ruled that accused public servants can be arrested only with permission of the appointing authorit
y, while others can be arrested with the prior approval of the Senior Superintendent of Police of the district.
However, the bench suggested that its direction for preliminary enquiry did not mean the officer concerned “must” do a PE, but that he “may” do it.
On Centre citing recent reports of atrocities on members of SCs and STs, the court said “we had made it very clear that it will not affect other offences like rape, murder etc”.
In its last hearing, the top court had clarified where a person is booked both under the SC/ST Act and any related offence under the IPC, the FIR can be registered immediately on other offences while the requirement of preliminary enquiry would apply only to offences under the SC/ST Act.
Further, Justice Lalit tried to explain why the bench allowed the provision for anticipatory bail. He said that under Acts like POTA, TADA, MCOCA and UAPA, both anticipatory bail and regular bail are denied to the accused. However, the SC/SC Act only disallows anticipatory bail while regular bail could be granted. “Theoretically, this would mean an accused will not be entitled to release before the arrest, but can be granted bail by producing him in court,” he said.