The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (PoA Act), 1989, also known as the SC/ST Act is enacted to prevent atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The Civil Rights protection Act 1955 was considered ineffective in the 1980s and therefore replaced with ‘Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act’ in 1989 and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules in 1995.
It was envisaged in the line of Article 21 (the right to live with dignity) and Article 17 (abolished “Untouchability” and its practice in any form) to bring the equality and inclusiveness in the society.
Salient Features of the Act
- A person not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe shall be punishable with imprisonment for six months to five years and with fine for certain offences:
- Social disabilities: fouls water sources,
- Personal atrocities: forcing to drink or eat any inedible, sexual exploitation and like acts which are derogatory to human dignity
- Atrocities affecting properties: wrongfully occupying property, forcing to leave home/village
- Malicious prosecution: Filing false cases
- Political disabilities: preventing from voting or being a candidate,
- Economic exploitation: bonded labour
- Certain serious atrocities are dealt with more stringent punishment of imprisonment and fine.
- False evidence or prosecution which convicts a victim of an offence which is capital in nature shall be punished with imprisonment for life and with fine. If the victim in such case be convicted and executed, the prosecutor shall be punished with death.
- Mischief by fire or any explosive substance to damage any property shall be punishable with imprisonment for six months to seven years and with fine.
- Mischief by fire or any explosive substance to cause destruction of place or worship or human residence shall be punishable with imprisonment for life and with fine.
- Public Servants:
- If public servant not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe commits any offence, shall be punishable with imprisonment for one year but which may extend to the punishment provided for that offence.
- If he willfully neglects his duties required to be performed by him under this Act, shall be punishable with imprisonment for six months to one year.
- It provides for enhanced punishment for subsequent conviction under the Act.
Duty of the Government:
- The Central Government is empowered to make rules to carry out the provisions of this Act.
- The Central Government has to place on the Table of each House of Parliament a report on the measures taken by itself and by the State Governments.
- The State Government shall take such measures as may be necessary for the effective implementation of this Act.
- Like legal aid to the victims, appointment of supervision officers, setting up special courts
- Economic and social rehabilitation of the victims
- Committees for better implementation, surveys, etc
- There are District Monitoring and Vigilance Committees (DVMCs) chaired by District Collector and State Monitoring and Vigilance Committee (SVMC) chaired by the Chief Minister.
- If after an inquiry the State Government is satisfied that the inhabitants of an area are involved in any offence punishable under this Act, the Government may impose a collective fine on the inhabitants.
- Empowers the State to take preventive action (by the law and order machinery) to prevent atrocities and to restore the feeling of security amongst the members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.
- Investigation of an offence committed under the Act cannot be investigated by an officer not below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP).
- For the purpose of providing for speedy trial, the State Government shall specify for each district a Court of Session to be a Special Court to try the offences under this Act.
- For every Special Court, the State Government shall specify a Public Prosecutor who has been in practice as an advocate for not less than seven years for the purpose of conducting cases in that Court.
- No legal proceeding can be taken against the Central Government or a State Government for anything done in good faith under this Act.
Challenges and Drawbacks
- Legal system: Slow disposal of atrocity cases, high rate of acquittal in courts, special courts constituted cater to cases other than this Act
- There are no provisions regarding rehabilitation of the victims.
- Lack of awareness among the victim community as well as police and officers.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act 2015
The amendment in the Act came in to force on 26th January 2016 and has added more stringent terms to the original act of 1989.
Highlights of the Amendment Act
- It included rehabilitation of victims.
- Included important measures for safety and security of women.
- Rights of victims and witnesses protected (Safety, concealing names etc.).
New Offences included:
- The act amended some of the existing offences and also included 19 new offences like
- Tonsuring of the head, moustache, or similar acts which are derogatory to the dignity of members
- Garlanding with chappals or shoes, abusing in caste name
- Dedicating a woman as Devadasi
- Perpetrating witchcraft atrocities
- Imposing social or economic boycott, etc.
For Public Servants:
- Strict disciplinary action against government officials for showing ‘willful negligence’ of duties..
Exclusive Special Courts:
- It mandates establishment of Exclusive Special Courts and Special Public Prosecutors to exclusively try the offences to enable speedy and expeditious disposal of cases.
- Power of Exclusive Courts to take cognizance of offence and completion of trial in 2 months.
Supreme Court Judgment on 20 March 2018
In an attempt to curb the misuse of SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and protect honest public servants Supreme Court gave following verdict:
- The court further directed that public servants can only be arrested with the written permission of their appointing authority.
- Before arresting a public servant under the Act, a preliminary investigation by an officer not below the rank of deputy superintendent (DSP) is a must.
- Also anyone accused of a crime under POA act, an arrest can be made only after the Senior Superintendent of Police concerned allows it.
- The Supreme Court was hearing the case filed by Subhash Kashinath Mahajan, director of technical education of Maharashtra, who had challenged a Bombay High Court judgment. The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of Bombay high court.
- The Bombay high court had earlier rejected a plea to quash the complaint filed against Mahajan by Bhaskar Karbhari Gaidwad, a store-keeper in a pharmacy college in Maharashtra, for making adverse entries in Gaidwad’s Annual Confidential Report.
Supreme Court’s Views for the Judgment:
- The bench referred to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2015, which said that closure reports had been filed in 15-16 percent of the complaints under the Act
- Over 75 percent of such cases taken up by the courts had resulted in acquittals/ withdrawal or compounding (not to prosecute a criminal) of the cases.
- There was a need to safeguard innocent citizens against false implication and unnecessary arrest for which there is no sanction under the law.
Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2018
There were protests all over India against the Supreme Court’s verdict and the Government was forced to pass an amendment to restore the original provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which the Supreme Court had struck down in a March ruling.
The Amendment seeks to insert three new clauses to Section 18 of the original Act:
- Preliminary inquiry shall not be required for registration of a First Information Report (FIR) against any person.
- The arrest of a person accused of having committed an offence under the Act would not require any approval.
- The provisions of Section 438 of the CrPC which deals withanticipatory bail, shall not apply to a case under this Act.
Government’s Views for the Amendment:
- The Supreme Court ruling dilutes the provisions of the Act.
- Preliminary enquiry and approval would delay registration of First Information Report (FIR) and will impede strict enforcement of the provision of the Act.
- It would result in delay in payment of admissible relief amount to the victims of atrocities admissible only on registration of FIR.
- All this would adversely affect the very objective of the Act to prevent commission of atrocities against members of SC and ST and be severely detrimental especially in heinous offences like sexual exploitation of SC/ST women including rape, gangrape, acid attacks and murder etc.