Violence rocked several parts of the country earlier this week as thousands of Dalits headed to the streets in protests against the Supreme Court ruling on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
On March 20, the Supreme Court said that the arrest of an accused under the SC/ST Act is not mandatory and recourse to coercive action would be only after preliminary inquiry and sanction by the competent authority.
Coupled with this, the court said, that there was no "absolute bar against grant of anticipatory bail in cases under the Atrocities Act if no prima facie case is made out or where on judicial scrutiny the complaint is found to be prima facie mala fide".
"..., we direct that in absence of any other independent offence calling for arrest, in respect of offences under the Atrocities Act, no arrest may be effected" without the permission of appointing authority in case of public servant or that of Senior Superintendent of Police in case of general public, said the bench of Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel and Justice Uday Umesh Lalit in its judgment.
Originally, the Act allowed for the immediate arrest of suspected offenders upon a complaint and denied anticipatory bail.
Protesters, including members of the communities as well as several political parties, have severely criticised the ruling, stating that it dilutes the Act which aims to protect the marginalised.
"Look at the literacy rate among the lower castes, they donâ€™t even know a SC/ST Act exists. How can they (the courts) say itâ€™s being misused?," Amit Kumar, a Dalit activist from JNU, told The Quint.
A candle light protest against the SC ruling in Ranchi; PTI Photo.
Ramai Ram, former Bihar Minister and a Dalit leader, said that they will demand for "Harijanistan" (Dalit land). "Constitutional rights of Dalits are being snatched from them and their dignity and honour hurt. Dalits cannot live in the country as a second-class citizen. We will demand Harijanistan," he said.
SC/ST groups want the apex court's order to be repealed.
The Congress, which has extended its support to Dalits, has called the Modi government to bring an amendment in Parliament or file a review petition against the SC ruling.
Several Dalit outfits called for a nationwide bandh on Monday, April 2 and protests were staged in many parts of the country, mostly in northern India including Bihar, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
At least nine persons are reported to have died in the violence and numerous others injured.
Police and PAC jawans conduct a flag march in Meerut on Tuesday, a day after violent protests over SC's ruling; PTI Photo.
Normal life in these regions were hit with agitators disrupting rail and road traffic and even blocking parts of national and state highways. Markets and educational institutions were forced to shut down in several areas and sporadic violence was also reported.
In Punjab, the final practical examinations of Class 10 and 12 of the Punjab School Education Board, which were scheduled to be held on Monday, were postponed to April 11. In Madhya Pradesh, as the protests took an ugly turn, authorities imposed a curfew in many places.
The government subsequently filed a review petition over the Supreme Court's order.
Seeking the judgment's recall, the government said it "entails wide ramifications and implications resulting in dilution of the stringent provisions" of the 1989 law.
Protests in Jodhpur; PTI Photo.
The petition referred to the "increase" in the "disturbing trend" of "certain atrocities" where Scheduled Castes were made to eat "inedible substances like human excreta", attacks on them and mass killings and rape of women belonging to SC and ST.
Despite the deterrent provision of the law, the high incidence of offences against SC/ST show that it "was not being adequately felt by the accused", it said, adding it was against this backdrop, that it became necessary to make its provisions more effective as it referred to 2016 amendment to the prevention of atrocities law.
The Centre's stand
The Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has said the government will argue the matter with full authority in the apex court for the verdict's reconsideration.
Prasad said the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party were committed to the welfare of SCs and STs and alleged that opposition parties, including the Congress, were politicising the issue.
"We wish to emphatically say that the provision of reservation for the Dalits in the said Act is firm and will remain firm. The Modi government has no idea at all of tampering with it, which the Congress is seeking to campaign in the most vicious manner," he said.
The Supreme Court's view
Denying any dilution of the Act, the Supreme Court declined to stay its ruling and asserted that it wanted to protect innocent people from being punished.
A bench of Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel and Justice Uday Umesh Lalit on Tuesday said that compensation can be paid to victims under The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, even without a FIR being registered. The bench was responding to the Centre's review petition.
Refusing to budge on its five directions issued on March 20, the court said that "We are not against the law or its implementation" and that the directions in no way diluted the law but were aimed to protect the innocent people from being punished. It described its direction for preliminary inquiry before an FIR is registered on a complaint as "filter".
Supreme Court; PTI Photo.
"People who are agitating have not read the order. There is a lot of hearsay," observed Justice Goel.
The court said that all they have done is to read the Constitution's Article 21 - guaranteeing protection of life and personal liberty - in the act and that should happen with every statute.
Asserting that it has in no way diluted or tinkered with the law to protect the SC/STs, Justice Goel said: "We are only giving effect to existing law. It is not a law of arrest that the moment an FIR is lodged, the accused is arrested" and the "procedure established by law should be fair, just and reasonable".
The apex court has listed the Centre's plea after 10 days for detailed hearing; all parties have been asked to file written submissions by then.
(With IANS inputs)