The Supreme Court has done well to dilute some of the more draconian provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, specifically those relating to the arrest of the accused and granting of bail. Saying that the law to protect SC/ST individuals from casteist slurs and discrimination was being abused to “blackmail” innocent citizens and public servants, a two-member bench of the apex court, comprising Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit, felt the law was being used to exact “vengeance” and to realise vested interests. Instead of helping blur caste-lines—the intent behind the legislation—it is reinforcing these and may even “perpetuate casteism”, the Supreme Court judgement says.
So, while the Act provides for immediate arrest of the accused followed by judicial remand and bars anticipatory bail, the SC has said that public servants who are alleged to have committed an offence under the Act cannot be arrested until there is written permission from their appointing authority. In the case of private citizens, an arrest can only be made after being allowed by the senior superintendent of police—both measures are aimed at preventing abuse, to ensure a senior official has applied his/her mind carefully before an arrest. Not surprisingly, SC has also said that there is no absolute bar on anticipatory bail, reversing its stand from its 2012 ruling, given by Justices P Sathasivam and Ranjan Gogoi.
The evidence is mixed on how badly the law is abused, but preventing a mandatory arrest before conviction is only fair. In Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam district, a police inquiry found that only five of the 45 cases filed under the Act in 2009 were genuine. In the case of 56,299 crimes against SCs the police took up for investigation in 2016, in contrast, National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) suggests there was a prima facie case since a charge-sheet was filed in over 78% of the cases disposed.
Yet, if you look at number of cases that went to trial in that year, only a fourth of people were convicted. This could be due to witnesses being coerced or weak prosecution, but presumably that would apply to all cases, not just those under this Act. While that points to the need for more rigorous prosecution and preparation of cases, of the 144,000 cases that were tried in 2016, the trial was completed in only 14,615, suggesting that quick trials are essential if SC/ST abuse is to be dealt with—indeed, the same also applies to those being accused of the crime.