Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Anti-atrocity law

One year after amendments aimed at nullifying the effect of a Supreme Court judgment that was seen as diluting the law against atrocities on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the apex court’s decision recalling the earlier verdict may not appear very significant. But the latest order by a division of the SC on the government’s petition seeking a review is more than a mere academic exercise. The sound reasoning and sympathetic reconsideration have fortified the legislative measure to restore the law on atrocities committed on Dalits as originally conceived by the Parliament. The conception was very clear that atrocities and harassment of the lower castes, Dalits and those doing menial work in the society should be checked and prevented considering every human being as equal. Somehow, the present dispensation has also been promoting hate and harassment of the Dalits across the country. This is likely to be counter-productive and disturb the secular and diverse fabric of the society. It is important to note that the March 2018 decision laid down three new rules as safeguards against the Act’s possible misuse: that the bar on anticipatory bail under Section 18 need not prevent courts from granting advance bail; that a person can be arrested only if the ‘appointing authority’ (in the case of a public servant) or the SP (in the case of others) approves such arrest; and that there should be a preliminary enquiry into all complaints. It caused an uproar among Dalits, and a nation-wide protest in August last year turned violent in some places in the country. There was political clamour for Parliament’s intervention to restore the anti-atrocities law to its original rigour at the earliest. That the Bench declined to stay its own order when a review was sought spurred the government into action. The decision also appears to have made the government wake up to the realties on the ground and initiate action against the accused involved in such cases. Some of the state governments have initiated the moves to enact a new law that provides for stringent punishment to those involved in mob lynching cases. It is also worth noting that there was widespread criticism then that the BJP’s perceived espousal of upper caste interests and its weak submissions in court had led to the verdict. It was also argued that the Centre was under political compulsion to undo the perception that the interests of the Dalits, SCs and STs were in danger. The court’s re-examination, on the contrary, is anchored in sound principles that go in the interest of the lower castes. It first underscores that special laws for the protection of SC and ST communities flow from social realities, the discrimination they still face and the circumstances that preclude them from mustering the courage to lodge a complaint in the first place. The court assails the assumption that SC and ST members are more likely to give false complaints than the general population, as evidenced by the fact that there is no preliminary enquiry or prior sanction for arrest envisaged for other complaints. In other words, the additional ‘safeguards’ against the alleged abuse of law by Dalits is another form of discrimination, the court has pointed out in its decision. Further, it rejects the idea of treating Dalits as people prone to lodging false complaints. The directions for getting an authority’s sanction for arrest or holding a preliminary enquiry for this class of cases alone are extra-statutory, and clearly amount to the judiciary engaging in legislation. The review is a timely reminder that the Supreme Court’s power to pass any order required to uphold justice cannot be used to give directives contrary to existing laws or to supplant them altogether. Apart from this, there is also a need that social justice has to be ensured for providing stability in the society which can ensure further peace in the country.