Balanced approach must

ATROCITIES ACT

Right to fair trial

In March this year, a two-judge bench of the Supreme comprising Justices A K Goel and U U Lalit issued a slew of guidelines to protect public servants and private persons from arbitrary arrests under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. It ordered that under the Act, a public servant could be arrested after approval of his appointing authority and a private person after the written permission of the Senior Superintendent of Police.

The verdict also opened a window of ‘anticipatory bail’ and a way out to ascertain whether complaints against the accused were frivolous or motivated. The SC bench found merit in the plea that the law was being misused by vested interests for political or personal reasons and that procedural safeguards were necessary to avoid false implication of innocents.

There was serious concern among the political class over the Supreme Court’s instant verdict. They raised many eyebrows against it and persistently demanded its review (which is already underway) in the “national interest” as there is a feeling of insecurity among the SC/STs and other oppressed classes.

According to them, the legislature had made stringent and punitive provisions for a reason, but the very purpose of the law stands defeated by the dilution of its provisions. Such interpretation, they say, is more likely to help the powerful accused rather than the weak and vulnerable victims, who are always at the receiving end and anxiously look up to apex court to protect, uphold and expand their freedoms.

Every harsh law, including the laws against rape, dowry or child marriage, has been misused and the SC/ST Act is no exception. Reports in this regard from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have been forthcoming too often. Not only this, even in the workplaces, members of the higher castes have been victims of abuse of the ‘Atrocities Act’, as it has come to be known, by their subordinates or superiors. Therefore, the SC order, laying down of necessary safeguards before it can be invoked against an alleged tormentor of an under-privileged ought to be welcome.

As per the National Crime Records Bureau figures in 2013, more than 4.6 lakh cases were registered under the Atrocities Act, and more than 46,000 ended in acquittals/withdrawals. Just over 7,000 cases led to convictions. Similarly, according to NCRB data in 2015, around 16% of the cases filed under the Act were false. Further, 75% of the cases disposed of by courts ended up in acquittal or withdrawal. As a result, the conviction rate has been woefully low.

It was almost three decades ago when, in a bid to protect the interests of the weak, the government allowed them to enjoy special rights by giving them legal protection and putting in place a stringent law so that those committing atrocities against SC/STs are not let off scot-free. In fact, in 2015, giving more teeth to the Act, loopholes were plugged through amendments to the legislation, which included new offences in its ambit, increasing the quantum of relief and stricter penalties for those found guilty. At the same time, it was hoped that those whom the law seeks to protect would not misuse it.

With the changing realities of time, it is almost a necessity that laws are rightly drafted with harsh provisions to provide particular protections to specific un-empowered groups and periodically reviewed so as to tackle misuse and/or any other issues that emerge.

To this end, the top court must be applauded for striking a balance between the essential task of protecting the interests of the underprivileged while also ensuring the rights of an accused. The highest court has rightly opined that the Atrocities Act should promote fraternity and integration of society, as the Constitution envisages, into “a cohesive, unified and casteless society.”

Misuse of the law

In India, SC/STs have suffered social ostracisation and economic deprivation for centuries. To address this social deficit and achieve the “dignity of the individual” was set out as one of the objectives in the Preamble of the Constitution. Article 17 abolishes untouchability and makes it an offence punishable in accordance with law. However, despite harsh laws, the abhorrent practice of discrimination and violence against marginalised sections of society continues.

While attempting to achieve the mandate of Article 17, however, courts cannot be oblivious to the rampant misuse of the law in question. The accused, too, has a right to fair trial. The legislature never intended to use the Atrocities Act as an instrument to blackmail or to wreak personal vengeance. It has also been used against public servants performing their bona fide duties, according to the court.

In all fairness, the Supreme Court has done the right thing to put in place adequate checks and balances to ensure against misuse of the law while ensuring that the genuine complaints get full protection of the Atrocities Act. Instead of injecting emotion into an issue which is endemic to society, a balanced approach guaranteeing full protection of the law to the victims of violence and abuse of the underprivileged while protecting innocent people is required.

Maybe the way out is to simplify the somewhat longish process of protection prescribed by the court in order to reassure the underprivileged that their welfare remains foremost in the minds of the authorities.

Simultaneously, there is a pressing need for more rigorous prosecution and preparation of cases. Quick trials are essential if SC/ST abuse is to be dealt with. Rather than severe penalty, swift disposal of cases by fast track courts alone can instil fear of the law. This will certainly serve as a deterrent as it is not so much the severity of punishment but its certainty that deters potential criminals from committing an act.

(The writer is advocate, Supreme Court)

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