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Constitutional Validity of Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2018

India, in a few of its parts, still faces the issue of untouchability and casteism. Despite having various laws and enactments for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe, India is still somewhere lacking in carrying out the purpose of these laws. Not only adults but even children face these discriminations on the ground of their caste. There have been situations where children are told to sit separately during the classes or the scheduled class girls have been told to clean the toilets in schools.

The constituent assembly, to point out the importance of eradicating the evil practice of untouchability, included the provision of Article 17 in the Indian Constitution. Likewise, to prevent the criminal offenses committed against the lower caste communities, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was introduced. This act aims to eliminate the numerous ways in which caste discrimination and caste-based crimes are played out. Though being a stringent law the rate of conviction is tremendously low and there is a great delay in the investigation under this act.

The Courts in several cases have held that caste bias needs to be proved before prosecuting a case under this act. In the case of Stephen Joseph v. The State of Kerala, in which a scheduled tribe minor girl was raped, the Court held that to attract the provisions of this Act the commitment of the crime by the accused needs to be proved that it was solely based on the girl�s Scheduled tribe status.

In Asharfi v. State of Uttar Pradesh, in which a Dalit woman was raped, the Apex Court in the case held that there was nothing on the records to prove that the commitment of the crime by the accused was on the grounds that she belongs to a Scheduled Caste and that the provisions of this act can only be implied when the intention of the accused of raping the girl is proven to be committed because of her caste status.

Constitutional Validity:

ST/SC (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989

Section 18 of the 1989 Act stated that- Section 438 of the Criminal Procedure Code, i.e. anticipatory bail, cannot be applied to the person who has been accused of having committed an offense under this Act.

The constitutional validity of this provision was first challenged in the case of the State of Madhya Pradesh v. Ram Krishna Balothia and Anr., where the Court observed that anticipatory bail cannot be denied to innocent persons against whom there was no prima facie case or false acquisitions. The Court also clarified that it does not intend to dilute the provision but to take adequate steps to safeguard the innocents.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of 2015, 15%-16% of the complaints filed under this Act resulted in closure. Whereas, around 75% of the cases related to the act had resulted in acquittals/ withdrawal or compounding of the cases.

The provisions of this act were then challenged in the case of Dr. Subhash Kashinath Mahajan v. The State of Maharashtra, where the appellant filed an application for quashing of the FIR filed by the complainant under the 1989 Act which was set aside. The Apex Court in this case issued a number of safeguards to prevent the misuse of the provisions of this act.

They are:
  • The investigating officer shall obtain prior approval from the authority before arresting the person accused of committing an offense under this Act.
  • A preliminary inquiry shall be conducted prior to the registration of FIR under this Act.
  • The accused can apply for anticipatory bail and the same shall be granted notwithstanding any order or judgment of any Court.

Therefore, keeping in mind the NCRB data, The Supreme Court in March 2018, substantially diluting the provisions, passed the judgment in this case to prevent the abuse or misuse of the ST/SC Act, 1989.

Amendment Act, 2018.
After the judgment in Mahajan�s case was passed, Section 18 of the Act became inoperative. In August 2018, The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha.

This bill seeks to state that:
  • For the arrest of the accused, the investigating officer shall not require any prior approval by the authority in charge.
  • For the registration of FIR, no preliminary inquiry shall be required against the accused person.
  • Further, no accused person, for the commission of any offense under this act shall apply for anticipatory bail until otherwise provided.

The bill was then passed on 9th August 2018, which introduced Section 18-A in the Act diluting the effects of the judgment passed in Mahajan�s case.

In the case of Prathvi Raj Chauhan v. Union Of India, the constitutional validity of Section 18-A was challenged. The petitioners claimed that this provision nullifies the effects of Mahajan�s case which makes it vulnerable to misuse of the Prevention of Atrocities Act. The three-judge bench, in this case, reviewed the petition and passed the verdict in February 2020. The Court observed that the safeguards issued in the judgment of Mahajan�s case had put an unnecessary burden on the lower caste communities. Therefore keeping this in mind, the Court then upheld the Constitutional validity of section 18-A of the Act.

In the Hindu Caste system, Dalits are considered outcasts. Caste discrimination has rooted so deeply within the traditions of Indian Society that it has lead to the commission of crimes against these communities. The purpose of this enactment when it was drafted was to protect these communities and their legal rights. Likewise, several other enactments not only provide opportunities but also encourage and help to uplift these weaker sections of the society.

The judgment in Prathvi Raj Chauhan�s case is a huge victory in the long legal battle of atrocities that are committed against the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe members and has also ensured social justice towards these communities. After all that they have suffered, this is the least that our society can give back to them.

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