Data on SC/ST Atrocities Act Points to Weak Implementation, Not 'Misuse'

If conviction rates under the Act are low, it has as much to do with the misuse of the provision as with the manner in which investigations are conducted and cases are prosecuted in the courts.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court recently asserted that the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 has become an instrument of “blackmail” and is being used by some to exact “vengeance” and satisfy vested interests. But viewed from the prism of what necessitated the Act and how effectively it has been implemented, a different picture emerges.

Though the intention of the court was clearly to protect officers from “arbitrary arrest” and to protect “innocent citizens” from being falsely implicated in cases, data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and the Ministry of Home Affairs shows that if conviction rates under the Act are low, it may have as much to do with the misuse of the provision as with the manner in which investigations are conducted and cases prosecuted in the courts.

‘No arrest without permission’

In its order, the apex court had directed that public servants can only be arrested with the written permission of their appointing authority. In the case of private employees, it had said, the senior superintendent of police (SSP) concerned would have to allow it.

It had observed that the public administration was wary of abuse of the Act and officials found it difficult to give adverse remarks against employees for fear that allegations under the Act may be brought against them.

As such, the apex court held that a preliminary inquiry should also be conducted before the FIR is registered to check whether the case falls within the parameters of the Atrocities Act or whether it was frivolous or motivated. The court also held that anticipatory bail should be allowed if the accused is able to prove that the complaint was malafide.

Comments on casteism

The court had also used the opportunity to emphasise how it felt the Act may even “perpetuate casteism” and how there was a need to curb “false implication of innocent citizens on caste lines”.

However, those who have been demanding stringent norms under the Act insist that the low conviction rate under it was actually a reflection on how the cases are registered and pursued. A report by the Human Rights Watch titled “Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India’s ‘Untouchables” had noted that “Dalits are frequently the victims of discriminatory treatment in the administration of justice. Prosecutors and judges fail to vigorously and faithfully pursue complaints brought by Dalits, which is evidenced by the high rate of acquittals in such cases”.

Noting how the police generally failed to “register or properly register crimes against Dalits”, it had noted that “Dalits’ right to equal treatment before organs administering justice is compromised at the outset”.

Another study, by the Economic & Political Weekly, had noted that nearly 50% of cases filed under the Act do not go to court and are closed by the police. It had also alluded to there being a “caste bias among the investigation officers”.

New amendments showed need for stricter provisions

In fact, the MHA, in its annual report in 2017, had noted how “despite the deterrent provisions made in the PoA Act, increasing atrocities against the members of SCs and STs had been a cause of concern to the Government”. The MHA had stated that “it was, therefore, considered appropriate to strengthen the Act and make the relevant provisions of the Act more effective.”

Subsequently, it had noted that in order to re-phrase existing sections of the PoA Act and to expand the scope of presumptions pertaining to institutional strengthening, appeals (a new section), establishing rights of victims and witness (a new chapter) and strengthening preventive measures, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2015 was passed by the Lok Sabha on August 4, 2015 and by the Rajya Sabha on December 21, 2015. The Act came into force from January 26, 2016.

Complaints against officials usually come under “other IPC crimes”

The NCRB data of crimes against SC/ST (PoA) Act, as revealed in its 2017 annual report, reveals that that while in 2014 the number of cases were 40,401, they had dropped marginally by 4.3% to 38,670 in 2015, but had risen by 5.5% to reach 40,801 in 2016. It had covered the sections pertaining to abuse and criminal intimidations, which were mostly invoked in complaints against officials and staff members, under the “other IPC crimes”.

In 2016, Uttar Pradesh (10,426 cases) reported the highest number of cases of atrocities against Scheduled Castes (SCs) accounting for 25.6% of the total followed by Bihar with 14.0% (5,701 cases) and Rajasthan with 12.6% (5,134 cases) during 2016.

Incidentally, the crime head-wise date revealed that the largest proportion of these cases was of assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty at 7.7% (3172 cases) followed by rape at 6.2% (2,541 cases).

In the case of Scheduled Tribes, the number of cases stood at 6,827 in 2014, fell by 8.1% to reach 6,276 in 2015, and then rose by 4.7% to 6,568 in 2016. In the case of STs, Madhya Pradesh (1,823 cases) reported the highest number of cases of atrocities at 27.8% followed by Rajasthan with 18.2% (1,195 cases) and Odisha with 10.4% (681 cases).

In the case of STs, there were 974 rape cases which constituted 14.8% of all crime against them, followed by assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty with 12.7% (835 cases) and kidnapping and abduction with 2.5% (163 cases).

Chargesheet rate 77%, conviction rate 15.4%

The disposal of cases by police and courts revealed that under the Act, 1989, 11,060 cases were taken up for investigation in 2016 and the charge-sheeting rate was 77%.

The data further revealed that It further stated that in 2016, there were 45233 cases pending trial from the previous year under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 whereas 5124 were sent for trial during the year resulting  in a total of 50,357 cases during the year. While no cases were withdrawn by the government and there were no cases disposed by plea bargaining, 49 cases were compounded.

During the year in 4546 cases, the trial was completed. While there were convictions in 701 cases, in 3845 the accused were acquitted or discharged. So the conviction rate was 15.4 % while the pendency percentage took at 90.5%.

Police found many cases to be ‘false’, ‘mistake of fact’

Final reports submitted by the police during the year revealed that the police had found 2150 cases to be “true but (with) insufficient evidence”, 5,347 cases to be “false”, and 869 cases to be “mistake of fact”.

The NCRB data also noted that the total population of SCs in India was 20.13 crores. It said atrocities refers to crimes committed against SCs by non-SCs/STs and that cases under only Indian Penal Code (without SC/ST Act) have been excluded from the purview of the data as they refer to crime against SCs by SCs/STs.

While some studies in the past have accused the police of not registering or investigating the cases properly or dropping them, the NCRB report said in 2016 the cases pending investigation from the previous year stood at 15498, cases reported during the year were 40801 and so the total cases for investigation were 56,299. Out of this, it said 16 cases withdrawn by government, 40 were transferred to other police stations or magistrate and six were not investigated under section 157(1) (b) of the Criminal Procedure Code.