The Scheduled Castes and The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989
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This article is written by Sarakshie Sonawane, 1st year BBA. LLB. (Hons.) at Symbiosis Law School, Pune. 

Introduction

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, as a primitive group has been prominently looked down upon because of their limited source of resources that supplement life. The laws of a nation along with political factors play a vital role not only in the development but also in the acknowledgment of such tribal groups. Due to restricted access to essential rights, they lack in terms of literacy, health, technology, infrastructure, etc. In order to facilitate such resources, it becomes the duty of the legislature to enact laws that act like guidelines that help in achieving the required equality. 

Historical aspect

Today, about 8.6 percent of India’s population constitutes tribes and sub-tribes, let alone the ones that need to be recognized. Before independence, the British also recognised the tribal communities and declared some of them as ‘Scheduled’. The Scheduled Districts Act, 1874 gave the power of self-governance within the British administration. After independence, the Government Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment was bifurcated in 1999, and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs was formed to provide more emphasis on legal, social, and economic problems of the tribes in India. 

Other than the Sixth and Seventh Schedule, the Constitution provides for equal educational and economic opportunities in the interest of Scheduled Tribes through Article 46 (Directive Principles of State Policy) which acts as guidelines for legislation. Article 15(4), Article 16 (4) and Article 17 are embedded in the Constitution of India as a mechanism to protect their rights by providing reservation and equal opportunities for education, employment, and abolishing untouchability respectively. 

Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, was the first post-independent legislation enacted for the purpose of protecting the civil rights of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The community has been a victim of persistent injustice throughout centuries and has been looked down upon as a downtrodden community. ​The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, is also known as the POA, SC/ST Act, the Prevention of Atrocities Act, or the Atrocities Act of 1989. The Act being notified on March 31, 1995, was enacted on September 9, 1989. ​ It is one of the legislations enacted to safeguard the rights of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes community in India.​

Objectives

Article 342(1)of the Indian Constitution defines the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes concerning the states and union territories as a special category of a tribe or a community as declared by the President through a public notification as per Article 366(25)

  • The Act primarily focuses on the prevention of the commission of offences and atrocities against the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of India. ​
  • The Act aims to provide for ‘Special Courts and Exclusive Special Courts’ for the purpose of trial of such atrocities. 
  • The Act provides for funds and aids for their free rehabilitation, travel money, maintenance expenses and authorises officers responsible to ensure efficient implementation of the same.
  • Moreover, the Act comprehensively aims for the social inclusion of the Dalits in society and to ensure their protection when crimes infringing their social, economic, democratic, and political rights are committed against them. 
  • It seeks to avoid deprivation, protects from deprivation and aids the deprivation of the marginalized communities.​

Summary of the Policy

  • The Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, lists 22 offences related to human behaviour towards this community. Atrocities are referred to offences that deny certain social, economic and political rights, perpetrate exploitation, discrimination and abuse by a person who does not belong to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe. ​
  • The Act deters social disabilities like forceful eating or drinking food (obnoxious substance), sexual exploitation, inflicting injuries, forcefully removing clothes, wrongfully occupy land, forceful beggary, false and frivolous complaints to police, denies the use of public resort, malicious prosecution, forceful eviction, bonded labour, offences related to their property, economic exploitation and other social, economic, political barriers and disabilities. 
  • Every offence under this Act is cognizable and non-bailable in nature, neither can an anticipatory bail be granted to the offender. Any person not belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe perpetrates such violence upon a member of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe shall be punished for a minimum period of six months which can be extended to five years and with fine.
  • Whoever not being a member of the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe community, gives false evidence or fabricates evidence intentionally to cause punishment of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe member for capital or imprisonment with fine under the Indian Penal Code. Such a person shall be punished with capital punishment.
  • Whoever not being a member of the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe community, gives false evidence or fabricates evidence intentionally to cause punishment of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe member for seven years or more, shall be punished for a minimum of six years which can be extended to seven and with fine. The same punishment term will be applicable if a person tries to use explosives or ignites fire intending to cause damage to property or hurt a member of the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe community.
  • The Act also provides to punish a public servant (who is not a member of the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe) for the willful neglect of his duties under this Act, which is punishable for a minimum period of six months extendable up to a year. 
  • Investigation to be done by a DSP level officer and the report of the investigation to be submitted to the Director-General of Police of the state which will help in solving the cases under this Act more quickly and efficiently.​ The State Level Vigilance and Monitoring Committee under the District Magistrate have to meet twice a year and the District Level Vigilance and Monitoring Committee to meet thrice a year for the proper implementation of this Act.​
  • The Act empowers the government to appoint special public prosecutors under ‘Special Courts’ and impose collective fines. It ensures efficient working of the public servants, authorized officers, right from reporting the crime to imparting justice by punishing the culprit and remedying the victim.

Critical appraisal

  • The SC-ST Act is enacted with the intention to cater to societies’ minority strata, to enhance their equal participation by eliminating hostility and the potential crimes against them. Although the Act provides essential policies that are framed to prohibit caste-based discrimination of the downtrodden community. The Dalits have been at the receiving end of all massacrers like the Bhima-Koregaon violence (2017), Khairlanji (2008) and Una violence. The Act empowers them to fight against injustice and recognizes the special treatment required to protect them. 
  • The Act empowers people who are unaware that their rights are being infringed. Lack of understanding of the Act makes it harder to protect those who are unaware that their rights are being abused. Awareness must be created about the Act and the ideals of the society it seeks to promote.
  • There is a lacuna when it comes to the identification of the atrocity-prone zones in the country. The Act to date identifies only 7 states which are prone to atrocities. The acknowledgement and recognition of such areas are imperative for the quick and speedy redressal of their grievances.
  • Many of the ‘Dalits’ who have converted or no longer belong to this community are deprived of the similar rights they require. Many of the isolated and primitive tribes which are not in the mainstream society can go unidentified. 
  • Misuse of the Act is quite common due to which legitimate atrocities go unnoticed due to the false caste-based hatred created due to the exploitation of the Act. The ultimate power is given to the members of the SC-ST community which can be misused against innocent accused. It can become an instrument of ‘blackmail’ to satisfy vested interests or a mode of vengeance too. 

Amendments to the Act

  • The Act’s amendment with effect from 2016, the term atrocities was extended to include against manual scavenging, forceful devadasis (women) and punishment for 10 years of imprisonment for kidnapping, prevention from contesting elections, grievous hurt etc.
  • It also included provisions for ‘preemption of offences’ and ‘willful negligence’ of public servants. Provision for the establishment of Special Court for speedy disposal of cases, the chapter on ‘Rights of Victims and Witnesses’ was also added. New offences like abusing caste names, social or economic boycotts, compelling to dispose of the human carcass, garlanding with footwear etc. are added to the list of atrocities in the Act. 
  • It specifies duties of public officers, setting up of Exclusive Special Court and Special Public Prosecutor at the district level.  Furthermore, punishes for restricting entry to common property, places of worship, health and education institutes too. 
  • The 1989 Act was also amended in 2018, wherein Section 18 (A) was changed with the effect of a preliminary enquiry not being required for registering a First Information Report (FIR) against the accused. It also mentioned the non-requirement of the investigating officer to approve the investigation. 

Judicial response

  • The rate of conviction is very less as compared to the cases filed with any complaints registered. In 1998, out of 147,000 POA cases filed, only 31,011 were brought to trial. The slow judicial process makes the citizens lose faith in the justice system. The establishment of Special Courts and tribunals must be expedited to do away with this problem.  
  • In Subhash Kashinath Mahajan vs The State of Maharashtra, the Court upheld the validity of the 2018 amendment and reinstated the bar on anticipatory bail. In Sajjan Kumar v The State and Andhra Pradesh, it was held that ‘mens rea’ or criminal intent is an essential ingredient to prove guilt, along with the knowledge of the accused of the victim belonging to the SC-ST community. With the copious cases, the Court considered the kinds of insults and intimidation. In Hitesh Verma V. The State of Uttarakhand & Anr, it held the validity of the case when the insult or atrocity was inflicted because the person belonged to a particular caste or tribe. 
  • Not just the Indian Judiciary, but the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous​ Peoples, 2007 and International Labour Standards on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples​ (ILO) are two major International Conventions and organisations that are engaged with tribal rights and promoting the welfare of this community.

Conclusion

The Act has been described as one that has many teeth but seldom bites. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes community have faced the brunt of oppression for several centuries and the statute to prevent atrocities against them are directed at curbing discrimination and caste-based violence. Although the Act provides for an efficient system to eliminate social bias as a powerful weapon on paper, implementation of the rules becomes very vital in order to achieve social changes. The police and bureaucracy form the basis of interaction between the state and society. This Act seeks to achieve social equality which is possible when not just the three pillars of democracy, but also the citizens act in harmony with the formulated laws.

There is much to learn from the Civil Rights Act, enacted by the Unites States’ Congress in 1964. Its amendments are landmark moments in history and have successfully eliminated slavery and discrimination to a great extent. Therefore, even if false allegations and misuse of the Act is not very uncommon, a strict system of implementation and redressal forums to identify legitimate injustice should be set up. Nonetheless, the SC-ST Act is the spine that aims to prevents atrocities against the marginalized communities of India and has been fruitful to impart justice for the betterment of India and its citizens.


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