The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 (amended in 2015 to include stricter prosecution for “new offences”) aims to prevent specific atrocities (see Factoids) against backward communities in India. It makes various offences against these communities punishable and provides for relief and rehabilitation to the victims. It is in consonance with Article 17 of the Constitution (which abolishes untouchability) and forbids acts of discrimination and prejudice against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. It is often referred to as the ‘SC/ST Act’.
On March 20, 2018, the Supreme Court issued new directions for the Act to protect it against purported misuse. Crucially, the court mandated that a preliminary inquiry (of not more than 10 days) be conducted before an FIR (first information report) is filed. It also said that public servants should only be arrested under provisions of the Act after their supervising authorities have sanctioned the arrest; other arrests would require the sanction of the district’s Senior Superintendent of Police. In addition, the court clarified that anticipatory bail can be granted if there is no prima facie case (or no case at first glance) against the accused.
There have been nationwide protests by SC/ST groups against this dilution of the law.
To which situations does the SC/ST Act apply?
The Act applies when specific offences are committed against Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes by a person who is not a member of these communities.
What does the Act consider as offences?
The SC/ST Act lists 22 offences related to historical practices that were used to subjugate backward communities or reinforce caste structures. These offences cover a range of practices that deny SC/ST communities economic, social and democratic rights. They include:
1. forcing a backward community member to eat or drink an inedible or obnoxious substance;
2. dumping excreta, carcasses or other obnoxious substances at a backward community member’s premises;
3. forcibly disrobing or parading a backward community member naked, or performing an act that robs him/her of dignity;
4. wrongfully occupying or cultivating land allotted to or owned by a backward community member;
5. compelling a backward community member into bonded or other kinds of forced labour;
6. forcing a backward community member to vote for a particular candidate;
7. instituting false and malicious cases against backward community members;
8. intentionally insulting or intimidating a backward community member in order to humiliate the person in public;
9. assaulting or using force against a woman belonging to a backward community in order to dishonour her or ‘outrage her modesty’;
10. denying access to certain public places and forest rights;
11. forcing a backward community member to leave his/her place of residence.The Act makes it mandatory for public servants to fulfil their duties appropriately and without neglect. If they fail to do so, they too can be punished under the Act. This provision ensures that the police register complaints properly and conduct speedy investigation (within 60 days), among other things.
What are the punishments for violating this law?
The SC/ST Act has a range of punishments for offences, from imprisonment (up to seven years) to forfeiture of property and fines.
It also gives the judicial system the power to extern – to remove a person from a particular area (for a maximum of two years) if he/she is likely to commit an offence under the Act. A failure to follow an externment order can result in arrest.
The Act empowers local officials such as district magistrates to take preventive action if they believe that an offence under the Act is going to be committed.
What other rights do victims have under the Act?
The Act makes it mandatory for the government to provide various facilities to victims and witnesses so that they can access justice more easily. Among other measures, the government must provide them with legal aid; ensure that they are aware of their court dates and are heard at all stages (including during the bail applications of the accused); and provide witnesses with a travel and maintenance allowance.The Act also requires the government to ensure the safety and security of victims and witnesses, and to make sure they are not coerced or threatened. It must put into place systems for the victims’ social and economic rehabilitation.
How is the Act enforced?
The Act asks for various special courts to be set up in each district to hear cases. These courts are meant to ensure speedy trials and quick justice. As far as possible, they are supposed to dispose of cases within two months, with proceedings conducted on a regular basis.
Focus and Factoids by Rishab Bailey.
Ministry of Law and Justice
Government of India
11 Sep, 1989