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New Delhi, February 10, 2020
The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the constitutional validity of the SC/ST Amendment Act 2018 and emphasised that citizens should foster fraternity among all sections of the community without reducing it to a ritualistic formality.
Citing marginalisation of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), the apex court said, "It is to address problems of a segmented society that express provisions of the Constitution that give effect to the idea of fraternity have been framed."
A Bench, headed by Justice Arun Mishra, said before registering an FIR under the Act it was not mandatory to conduct a preliminary inquiry into the matter, and also senior officials' approval was not required. "The right to a trial with all attendant safeguards is available to accused of committing offences under the Act; they remain unchanged by the amendment's enactment," the court observed.
Justice Ravindra Bhat, the other judge on the Bench, said citizens should treat each other with equality.
Justice Bhat emphasised that the liberal use of anticipatory bail would run contrary to the intention of Parliament. "I consider such stringent terms, otherwise contrary to the philosophy of bail, absolutely essential, because a liberal use of the power to grant pre-arrest bail would defeat the intention of Parliament," he said.
The apex court noted the courts could grant anticipatory bail only in cases where prima facie was not made out. It took into account the 2016 reports, which claimed 422,799 crimes against SCs and 81,332 against STs were reported between 2006 and 2016.
"It's important to keep oneself reminded that while sometimes (perhaps mostly in urban areas) false accusations are made, those are not necessarily reflective of the prevailing and widespread social prejudices against members of these oppressed classes," it said.
The court also weighed the expanded definition of "atrocity" through amendment in 2016, which lists pernicious practices (under Section 3), including forcing eating of inedible matter, dumping of excreta near homes or in the neighbourhood of members of such communities and several other forms of humiliation, which they get subjected to.
"All these considerations far outweigh the petitioners' concern that innocent individuals would be subjected to, what are described as, arbitrary processes of investigation and legal proceedings, without adequate safeguards," it observed.
In January 2019, the apex court had refused to stay the 2018 amendments to the SC/ST Act that restored the provision that no anticipatory bail be granted to the accused in offence lodged under this law.
The court in its 2018 verdict took note of misuse of the stringent SC/ST law in targeting private individuals and government officials. The court had ruled there should not be any immediate arrest after a complaint was lodged under the law.
The decision triggered violent protest across the country. To mitigate this ruling, in August 2018, Parliament passed a Bill to over-run this verdict. The Centre then filed a petition seeking review of the 2018 verdict.
In October 2019, the top court restored the position of the law to its 2018 verdict by recalling two directions -- no absolute bar on grant of anticipatory bail, and no need for preliminary inquiry before arrest of an individual under the Act.
A PIL was filed against this judgement. The recent verdict has come on this PIL.
The 2018 amendments had ruled out any provision for anticipatory bail in connection with atrocities against SC/STs notwithstanding any court order. Therefore, the aspect of preliminary inquiry was not mandatory for lodging a case followed by arrest, which does not require any approval.