SC/ST law: govt playing both sides

The government had no option but to bring forward a legislation to amend the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act after a recent Supreme Court judgement had weakened some of its provisions. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has said that the government wanted to get the amendment bill passed in the current session of parliament, displaying a sense of urgency on the matter. It is the widespread protests by SC/STs against the court ruling that has forced the government to give the bill high priority. The BJP’s allies, like the Lok Janshakti Party of Ram Vilas Paswan, had also demanded that the court’s ruling should be countered with legislation. The scale of the Bharat bandh held in April in protest against the ruling was an indication of the strong feelings of the SC/ST communities in the matter. Another bandh has been called for August 9. 

The grouse is genuine, because the ruling has diluted some key provisions about investigation and prosecution of atrocities against SC/STs. The court’s guidelines made it possible to grant advance bail to persons accused of committing atrocities and made their arrests conditional on approval by the appointing authority if the accused is a government servant, and of the district police chief in case of others. A preliminary enquiry was also prescribed before the registration of a case. Though it has been claimed that the guidelines would help to ensure fairness in investigation and prevent misuse of the Act, they would actually make it much more difficult to prosecute crimes against members of the SC/ST communities. Even under the present law, the conviction rate in such crimes is below 25%. Dalits are oppressed and vulnerable. They can hope for justice only if the law supports them strongly. The guidelines would provide loopholes to subvert cases of atrocities, and so they need to be undone. 

The irony is that the government’s law officers had failed to defend the SC/ST Act and told the court that it supported the contention that it had been misused. This confirmed the misgivings that the SC/STs had about the attitude of the government and the BJP towards them. But the backlash against the ruling has forced it to change tack and portray itself as the protector and defender of the interests of SC/STs. So, while the bill meant to override the court’s directives is welcome, the government is seen playing both sides in a political game. This is cynical politics rather than a sign of genuine commitment to social justice. 

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SC/ST law: govt playing both sides

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