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Govt says judgment on SC/ST Act contrary to legislative policy, files for review

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The government on Monday urged the Supreme Court to re-examine its March 20 judgment blaming Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of misusing a law to protect Dalits from caste atrocities, as a means for “blackmail”.

The review, a rare remedy, was filed even as violence against the apex court verdict swept the country and claimed several lives.

“The judgment affects a substantial portion of the population of India being members of the SC/ST, and is contrary to the legislative policy of the Parliament,” the government said.

“With great respect, the government differs with the reasoning given in the Supreme Court’s judgment, virtually redoing the entire architecture of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The Narendra Modi government is firmly committed to the protection, safety, security and dignity of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes,” Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said on Monday.

The 89-page verdict by a Bench of Justices A.K. Goel and U.U. Lalit read down Section 18 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 to allow accused persons under the Act to apply for anticipatory bail. Section 18 barred persons accused of causing casteist injury and insult to Dalits from seeking anticipatory bail.

Secondly, the judgment directed that an FIR should be registered only after a “preliminary enquiry” was held by a Deputy Superintendent of Police to check if the complaint was “frivolous”. Any deviation from the directions would automatically lead to the contempt of the Supreme Court, the Bench had warned.

In its review petition, the Centre said the court had no business to dilute the Act by laying down such guidelines and make it easier for accused persons to escape arrest.

“In the given situation of continuing offences of atrocities against members of SC/ST, it would be more significant and meaningful to affirm the reliance and trust of SC/ST on the statute and not make it easier for the accused to get away from arrest by imposing a preliminary enquiry,” the Centre said.

Of the 47,338 cases registered across the country in 2016, only 24.9% of them ended in conviction and 89.3% were pending by the end of 2016. Instead of being misused, the Act is weakly implemented, the Centre said.

The low rate of conviction was attributed to a delay in lodging an FIR, hostile witnesses and complainants, the absence of proper scrutiny of cases by the prosecution before the filing of a chargesheet, and lack of proper presentation and appreciation of the evidence by the court.

Now, a preliminary enquiry would only reduce the rate of registration of cases and conviction, increase pendency and per se serve as a deterrent in filing FIRs, the government said.

Objecting to the court’s reasoning that non-availability of anticipatory bail was in violation of Article 21 (fundamental right to personal liberty), the government reminded that offences under the Act are “heinous crimes committed to humiliate and subjugate members of the SC/ST community with a view to keep them in a state of servitude”.

“While it is important to protect the rights of the accused under Article 21, it would deserve to be considered that the protection of Article 21 as well as Article 17 (abolition of untouchability) is equally available to the members of the SC/ST. The immense pain and injury caused on the commission of offence against SC/ST is the worst form of violation of Article 21 requiring complete and strict implementation of the provisions of the Act,” the review petition said.

An accused on anticipatory bail would use his liberty to terrorise his victims and prevent proper investigation.

Section 18 of the Act is its “backbone” as it enforces an inherent deterrence and instils a sense of protection amongst members of the SC/STs.

“Any dilution would shake the very objective of mechanism to prevent offences of atrocities and deprive members of the SC/ST of the constitutional guarantees,” the petition said.

Potential of misuse of an Act cannot be a “valid, justifiable or permissible ground” for diluting its stringent provisions of the Act. If that’s the case, the entire criminal law would be rendered toothless, the government argued.

The government reminded the apex court that the “constitutional goal of equality for all citizens of this country can be achieved only when the rights of the SC/STs are protected”.

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