Spontaneous public fury is something that always appears to catch the government of the day by surprise. The trigger for such a reaction could be anything, but in the case of the April 2 Bharat Bandh called by various SC, ST rights groups, it was the March 20 Supreme Court of India’s ruling on the implementation of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
A two-judge bench of the court on that day banned automatic or immediate arrest of an accused named in a complaint filed under the Act’s provisions. It ruled even before a First Information Report is filed, all actions resulting from such a complaint filed by a Dalit, must be preceded by a preliminary inquiry into the veracity of the complaint.
Dalit organisations also viewed the court’s observations on ‘acknowledged abuse’ of the Act, which since its enactment in 1989, granted wide powers of arrest of people accused of violating the provisions of the Act, negatively.
Not in Agreement
Though the court made it clear that its intention was to protect the innocent from victimisation under the Act, particularly from false complaints, the ruling was not taken kindly by SC, ST groups, political parties and supporters of Dalit rights, which viewed the court’s words as a dilution of the Act. The opponents of the verdict did not agree to granting of anticipatory bail under the Act if the complaint was found to be made with malafide intentions.
And for those on the frontline of implementing the Act, the police, the uniformed force that is primarily responsible for maintenance of law and order, the court had said that police officers and public servants cannot be arrested under the Act unless such action is approved by their appointing authority.
The Dalit organisations have taken the view that this effectively makes the Act toothless as the very provision of automatic arrests under the Act has come to represent the power of the Act, which gave these communities a sense of protection from abuse.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre scrambled to contain the potential damage to its image as a champion of the Dalit cause. In the hope of containing Dalit anger, it filed a review petition in the court seeking an immediate stay on the court’s March 20 order.
The petition was filed the same day as that of the Bharat Bandh. The court turned down the Centre’s plea while promising to reconsider its judgment after 10 days. It also instructed the parties involved to submit their written submissions.
The Central government that stood to lose the most if the pent-up Dalit anger exploded, appeared to have been caught by surprise by the scale of the April 2 protests. While the March 20 Supreme Court order may have been the trigger for the protests, the spontaneity and the scale indicated a much more widespread and rooted accumulated anger and frustration against the government among the Dalits.
Breaches Tipping Point
Nine people were killed in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh during the Bharat Bandh on April 2. Six of the deaths occurred in Madhya Pradesh, two in Uttar Pradesh and one death was reported from Rajasthan. The bandh also brought life to a near standstill in Punjab and parts of Maharashtra.
Appeals by the Home Ministry for calm and an assurance that the Central government was taking up the matter of ‘dilution’ of the Act did not cut any ice with the protesting Dalit organisations and groups.
The anger in the country’s Dalit communities appears to have more than just one reason. The March 20 Supreme Court judgment only appears to have pushed the SC and ST communities in the country over the tipping point.
Dalit groups claim that they reached that point only because they felt pushed to react as frustration with the Central government had been building steadily over the past few years. The Dalit communities have said since the April 2 protests, that they are experiencing a sense of betrayal and lack of trust in the BJP government at the Centre.
Supreme Court Case
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court declined to stay its March 20 verdict. The court, however, made it clear that it was not against the Act but was only interested in protecting innocent people who may be victims of malafide intentions of complaints under the Act and the provisions of the Act cannot be used to terrorise the innocents.
The ruling that set off Dalit anger came from the bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit that was dealing with an appeal by an education department official from Maharashtra who sought dismissal of a criminal case against him.
The complainant’s contention was that the case under the Act filed against him did not include any provisions of the Act. The Supreme Court bench then said it was taking note of similar cases from the past in other courts where frivolous complaints were lodged under the Act for personal motives. This, the bench said, required laying down of guidelines to prevent misuse of the Act to protect innocents.
Making matters difficult for the Centre that filed a review petition, was the fact that it had, according to the court, previously acknowledged “abuse” of the Act. “The Union itself had said there was abuse,” observed Justice Goel.
The court pointed out that the government had brought on record the 2014-15’s Sixth Report of the Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment on SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2014, in which the Standing Committee agreed that there was a need to take action to protect innocent persons from being victimised under the Act.
The court said that the government had first acknowledged abuse of the Act and that Section 18 of the Act should be read to allow anticipatory bail while in fact no such bail is allowed under the Act. But with reference to the review petition filed by the Centre, the court wondered why the government was supporting the ban on anticipatory bail and claimed that such a clause did not violate an individual’s fundamental right to personal liberty.
Making things more murky for the government was the amicus curiae in the case, Amrendra Sharan, who informed the court during the review petition hearing that the March 20 judgment was based on the government’s views about abuse of the 1989 law. According to Sharan, the government gave the data on the abuse in its submissions but was challenging the court’s judgement, which took into consideration these very submissions before passing its March 20 order.