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Legislative Analysis: The Scheduled Castes And Scheduled Tribes (Prevention Of Atrocities) Act,1989

Historical Evolution
Caste system in India is an age old problem; the entire Indian society has been divided on the basis of their caste. The SCs and STs form the most vulnerable part of the society, they have been oppressed as well as suppressed since times immemorial. They've been the victims of several heinous crimes such as, rapes, murder, sexual assault, being burned alive amongst various others; in order to safeguard them from such heinous crimes several laws and actions were taken.

The first law passed in order to remove caste disabilities was under the British regime. India post-independence while drafting the constitution tried to ensure that every single citizen of the country would be treated equally in all aspects, Dr. B.R.Ambedkar had put in huge efforts to enumerate several provisions in the constitution in order to remove the caste disabilities and to bring equality in the main stream society.

The constitution with the help of the fundamental rights mentioned in part III of the Indian constitution tried to abolish the caste system. Several provisions in the constitution protects the interest of the disadvantaged group such as Article 14 of the constitution which provides every citizen the right to equality, Articles 15 and 16 is exemplified and particularized this and Article 17 abolishes untouchability.

However none of these provisions actually brought much change in the society, hence due to the failure of the constitutional provisions in bringing equality in the society the parliament implemented the untouchability offence act 1955. Due to several loopholes and general lacunae in this act, the untouchability offence act in 1976 was refurbished as the Protection of Civil Rights Act.

Despite several measures taken by the government they were however not able to bridge the gap between the upper caste and the lower castes, the laws such as the protection of civil rights and other provisions of Indian penal court were inadequate in removing the atrocities faced by the lower caste people hence the parliament passed the Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 which focused more on the prevalent problems as well had more stringent punishments.

Objective of the law
Even after several measures taken by the government of India in order to improve the social- economic status of the lower caste people, their lives have not changed much. Despite the constitution abolishing untouchability and providing equal rights to everyone it can't be seen much in reality, people belonging to the lower caste are still humiliated in the society.

With the spread in education people belonging to the lower caste tried to assert their rights however whenever they did try to assert their rights, the people belonging to the upper caste who had vested interest would try to terrorize and cow them down.

The existing laws such as the protection of civil rights were inadequate and the punishments were also not stringent hence in order to prevent the SCs and STs from being victimized and in cases of atrocities faced adequate remedies being provided to them was the key objective to bring new laws.

Thus the objective of the scheduled caste and scheduled tribes 1989 act was to introduce more stringent measures in order to provide higher punishments for committing atrocities against the SCs and STs. This legislation was enacted with the intention to provide justice to the people belonging to lower caste and to abolish the practice of untouchability in real sense. Or in other words to treat the SCs and STs as an equal member in the society.

Summary of the legislation
The scheduled caste and scheduled tribes act 1989 was passed in order to safeguard the people belonging to the lower caste from various atrocities faced by them. The word 'atrocity' wasn't defined before the enactment of this act. Atrocities refers to any offence against the SCs and STs committed by the people belonging to other castes.

The prevention of atrocities act can be generally divided into 3 broad categories, each category covering list of issues related to atrocities faced by the SCs and STs and their position in the society.
  • The first category contains provisions related to the criminal law, in this category criminal liability is established for all the crimes defined in the act and it also expands the scope of penalization in categories specified under criminal law.
  • The second category is made up of all the provisions and liabilities available for the victims of differ]rent kinds of atrocities
  • The final category contain the provisions which had set up special authorities for the monitoring as well as for the exertion of the act

The act itself is divided into 5 chapters:
  1. Preliminary: contains definitions of basic terms used in the act
  2. Offences of atrocities: this chapter specifies the various acts of atrocities as well as the punishments accompanied with committing the atrocities.
  3. Externment: it talks about the actions taken against a person who may commit a crime, this chapter talks about the removal of such person and the consequences he may face if he refuses to move.
  4. Special Courts : the last chapter talks about the special courts set up for the purpose of providing speedy trials under offences committed under this act and also specifies the functioning of the special courts.
    Chapter 4 also has a subpart titled 4A which deals with the rights of the victims and witnesses in the cases of atrocities.
  5. Miscellaneous: the last part contains mix of various provisions such as the non-applicability of the section 438 of the code, the power vested to the state government to impose fines as well as the preventive action to be taken by the law and order machinery among various other similar provisions

Some of the salient features of this act being:
  • The act lists about 22 various offences which relates to the different patterns and behaviors which are used in inflicting criminal offences on the people belonging to lower caste and thus breaking their self-respect and esteem. This includes discrimination, exploitation and abuse of the legal process as well as the denial of economic, democratic and social rights of the people
  • This act provides protection of the SCs and STs against:
    1. Social disabilities such as denial of access to certain places or forcing them to do labor
    2. Personal Atrocities such as sexual exploitation, injury or forceful drinking or eating of inedible food
    3. Political disabilities such as forcing them to not vote or forcing them to vote for a candidate of not their choice.
    4. Economic exploitation such as forcefully snatching their properties as well as not paying them wages for their labor
This act defines various atrocities as well as prescribes the measures and remedies available, the punishments under this act are far more strict and several punishments as well as the quality of the punishment are also enhanced.
  • For a far more speedy trial the act as also set up special courts in cases of atrocities and special public prosecutors are also appointed apart from this, the act also empowers the government to impose fines and denies anticipatory bail as well as probation to convict.
     
  • Apart from providing remedies for the offences committed the act also tries to prevent any atrocity to take place hence the act allows the identification of atrocities prone area and removes a potential offender, the act has also set up mandatory monitoring system at different levels i.e. district, state and national level.

The prime motive of this act is to provide justice to the lower caste people through proactive efforts and providing them with a life of dignity and to ensure that they live without the fear of violence or suppression from the dominant castes.

Critical appraisal
Post-independence there was a sudden rise in the atrocities against the lower caste and in order to safeguard them several provisions and laws were passed however there wasn't much change brought by them, thus the parliament had primarily focused on the several issues faced by the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe and passed the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe act (prevention of atrocities act).

The prevention of atrocities act brought with itself several changes in the existing laws in order to bring a change in the society and to ensure that the SCs and STs are finally treated equal in the society, the act had defined several atrocities and had specified the strict punishments accompanied with them.

Even though the act had not drastically reduced the crimes against the Dalits however there has been a gradual decrease in the crimes committed against them. More people are being aware of their rights and try to assert it, with stringent punishments being available now. The people belonging to the lower caste have started coming forward to file case and seek remedies.

Thus it can be said that even though there hasn't been massive change in the condition of the SCs and STs however there has most certainly been a decline in the atrocities faced by them.

Amendments
The prevention of atrocities act was amended in 2015 as well in 2018
The atrocities against the SCs as well as STs had raised tremendously in 2013-15, in 2014 almost 47500 cases were reported. Due to certain loopholes present in the act it wasn't being efficient at all hence there was an appeal made in order to amend the act and bring in changes by including more offences in the act to ensure proper monitoring of the act to ensure speedy justice and relief.

The 2015 amendment of the act had brought in the following changes:
  • Several new offences were added in the list of atrocities
  • Exclusive special courts were set up to ensure speedy trial
  • The relief fund provided to the victims was also enhanced.
The 2018 amendment was passed in order to nullify the Supreme Court judgment in the case of Subhash Kashinath Mahajan v. The State of Maharashtra & anr.[1]the court in this case had introduced certain safeguards in order to prevent the misusage of this act including provision on anticipatory bail however this judgment had led to massive protests by the dalits and tribes as they felt that these safeguards were diluting the purpose of the act thus the parliament had passed the amendment in order to nullify the supreme court's judgment and bring the act in its original form.

Changes brought with amendment were:
  • Nullified the supreme court's decision to provide for anticipatory bail thus maintaining the original position of no anticipatory bail in atrocities cases

Judicial response

The judicial response in the cases under the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe act proves the importance and need of this act. The judiciary while hearing several cases of the atrocities act have emphasized time and again on the importance of this act in the society.

While passing the judgment in the case of Prathvi Raj Chauhan v Union Of India[2] the supreme court emphasized that the Scheduled caste and tribe form an extremely vulnerable part of the society hence protecting their interest is of utmost importance, the judges also emphasized that if we can't protect them by providing protective discrimination then in a way we're placing them in a disadvantageous position

Similarly the judicial responses at times depicts the loopholes still present in the act such as in the case of Hitesh Verma v. State of Uttarakhand[3] where the court held that an insult against a SC wouldn't be deemed an offence unless it has been done in the 'public eye'. This clearly depicts how the act still contains several loopholes which can be used to harass the lower caste people.

Conclusion
The Scheduled Caste and scheduled tribes act 1989 is an extremely crucial act passed for safeguarding the vulnerable part of the society from the dominant caste. This act was in a way like a boon to the SCs and STs which helps in providing them with the equal status and respect in the society which they've always deserved.

This act also ensures that no one stops them in asserting their rights and safeguards them from several atrocities. However despite the act safeguarding the lower caste people the act still has several loopholes which are used by the offenders to escape liability, similarly there are times and places where the act isn't implemented hence to ensure that the act is utilized properly new provision must be brought.

This act would only be meaningful if every single person belonging to the lower caste are treated equally and aren't discriminated against; this act is a step towards a society in which everyone is treated equally and with respect.

End-Notes:
  1. Subhash Kashinath Mahajan v. The State of Maharashtra &anr., (2018) 6 SCC 454
  2. Prathvi Raj Chauhan v Union Of India , 2020 SSC OnLine SC 159
  3. Hitesh Verma vs. The State of Uttarakhand and Ors. MANU/SC/0843/2020

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