The Supreme Court’s recent move to issue directions to prevent the ‘misuse’ of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has raised the hackles of activists and victims, who say that this decision will subvert the entire purpose of the Act.
A Bench headed by Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit, examining if there can be procedural safeguards to prevent the ‘abuse’ of the Act, stated that a government official cannot be prosecuted under the Act on a mere allegation. A public servant can be held only if an appointing authority approves of it, while a private authority can be prosecuted under the direction of a Senior Superintendent of Police.
The 1989 Act penalises casteist insults and any discrimination, and denies anticipatory bail to the accused – but this may all be affected in the wake of the Apex Court’s order. The court maintained that there is no bar against granting anticipatory bail if no prima facie case is made out or if, on judicial scrutiny, the complaint prima facie is found to be malafide.
In 2016, a Dalit PhD scholar in the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide after he was suspended from the college. A large section of students and leaders termed the move to suspend him as unfair.
Later, a case was filed against then Minister of State Bandaru Dattatreya and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ramachandra Rao for abetting Rohith’s suicide – they had written to then Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani, which eventually led to Rohith’s suspension.
Dattatreya and Ramachandra were booked under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, along with Vice-Chancellor of University of Hyderabad Appa Rao Podille.
The case has been delayed as investigating authorities are still awaiting a report on whether Rohith was a Dalit or not.
Speaking to TNM, senior advocate Vasuda Nagaraj, who is pursuing the Vakapalli rape case, where Adivasi women have alleged they were raped by personnel of the state’s elite anti-Naxal force, the Greyhounds, a decade ago, says, “I hope a review petition is filed in court; otherwise nothing will be left of the Act. Courts must consider how caste-ridden and misogynistic the world still is, otherwise this will only strengthen the impunity of the perpetrators.”
Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother and an activist, tells TNM, “The BJP government must be happy with this verdict. This pronouncement by the court just worsened the situation for authorities fail to act against the accused in any case.”
She believes no review petition will be filed, for “this is exactly what the government wanted”.
VS Krishna, coordination committee member in the Human Rights Forum, called the Supreme Court move “regressive”.
“At a time when we are looking to implement the law in a comprehensive and stringent fashion, we have a move that counters the letter and spirit of a progressive law. This Act came into being as a result of the struggles of the SCs and STs, and seen as a ray of hope to address caste inhumanity.”
According to him, it’s not so much the misuse of the law, than the poor implementation of it.
Meanwhile, reports suggest that several Dalit MPs from the ruling BJP have met with the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Thawar Chand Gehlot, on Wednesday, and asked him to take up the matter with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.