Understanding the Indian Supreme Court Judgment on The Atrocities Act, Against Backward Classes
The Supreme Court of India recently rendered a historic judgment relating to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (Act). The Court in the case of S.K. Mahajan v. State of Maharashtra, laid down certain guidelines which in its opinion will act as safeguards against the rampant misuse of the Act. These guidelines have been severely criticized by the members of the community, who believe they render the protection under the Act useless. For reasons I mention below, I believe that the Court’s judgment is correct.
To understand the entire issue at hand, a little background is beneficial. Historically in India, members of the Schedule Caste and Tribes (community) have been victims of untouchability, denied access to public places and other similar atrocities. To curb this, the Act was enacted to prohibit and penalize persons from committing atrocities against the members of such communities. For instance, activities like passing racial slurs, prohibiting access to public places, throwing excreta and other such obnoxious substances on the members of the community were made punishable offences.
However, since the Act contained stringent provisions, it also created scope for misuse against innocent persons. This was possible, as under the Act, an accused was not allowed anticipatory bail, they could be immediately arrested and further, the Act incentivized persons filing a complaint by paying them several allowances on filing of the complaint. Furthermore, this Act was used against public servants by the person against whom they took action. According to the data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (India), the Act had a poor conviction rate (26%) and the rate of false cases was high as well (40%). Against this background, the Supreme Court held that (a) anticipatory bail shall be granted to an accused if there is no prima facie evidence against him/her, (b) no arrest shall be made of a public servant unless the appointing authority approves it, in case of other citizens, unless a preliminary enquiry is conducted within seven days.
The Supreme Court verdict deserves to be lauded for the following reasons.
First, it promotes due process. Arresting an individual has a severe impact on their freedom of liberty. Earlier, if a person filed a mere complaint without any proof, the accused could be arrested immediately. The Court balances this provision with due process by stating that no arrest should be made unless prima facie evidence exists, thereby curbing the possibility of a wrongful arrest.
Second, the denial of anticipatory bail is a provision which exists only in statutes dealing with terrorism. Even a person accused of committing murder is entitled to anticipatory bail if he can prove that there is no prima facie evidence against him/her. Therefore, by incorporating an embargo on anticipatory bail, an accused under the Act is considered equal to a person accused of a serious offence like terrorism, which, in my opinion, is an unequal classification.
Third, the guidelines curb the possibility of misuse. It has been reported in several cases, that given the stringent provisions of the Act, it is misused to blackmail innocent members/public servants of the other classes. The judgment, by imposing the requirement of a preliminary inquiry, ensures that only genuine cases are taken up. It also allows public servants to perform their duties without the fear of being accused of violating the Act.
While this judgement is welcome, I believe that the Court should have gone further. It missed out on a major reason for such high rate of fake cases, the lack of penalty for false reporting. The Court should have imposed a penalty for people filing fake cases, something the Act does not provide. Nevertheless, the judgment is a step in the right direction and balances the rights of accused perpetrators of the Act and the community by ensuring that only the guilty are tried and the innocent are spared.