New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday (March 20) laid down strict guidelines to protect public servants and private employees from arbitrary arrest under the 1989 Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The Atrocities Act, in operation for three decades, protects members of SC/ST communities from casteist abuse and discrimination. In a strong indictment of continued misuse of the Act, the court observed in its judgment that the legislation has become an instrument to “blackmail” innocent citizens and public servants.
Under the new guidelines, public servants can be arrested only after getting written sanction from their appointing authority. In case of private employees, the complainant has to get permission from the senior superintendent of police. The reasons for allowing the arrest have to be given in writing and submitted to the accused and the concerned court.
In addition, a preliminary inquiry has to take place before filing an FIR. The new guidelines require the investigating agencies to ascertain whether the case falls under the ambit of the Atrocities Act or whether it is driven by political and personal reasons.
“To avoid false implication of an innocent, a preliminary enquiry may be conducted by the DSP concerned to find out whether the allegations make out a case under the Atrocities Act and that the allegations are not frivolous or motivated,” ruled a bench of Justices A.K. Goel and U.U. Lalit.
The judgment came in response to a petition filed by Subhash Kashinath Mahajan, Maharashtra’s director of technical education, challenging an order of the Bombay high court. The court had rejected Mahajan’s plea contesting an FIR against him for disallowing prosecution of a department official. The official had been charged with making adverse remarks against an employee.
Quashing the case, the apex court, said the proceedings were a “clear abuse of process of court”. The bench observed that there has been a systematic abuse of the law for over three decades.
Quoting the judgment, a report in the Indian Express said, “It has been judicially acknowledged that there are instances of abuse of the Act by vested interests against political opponents in panchayat, municipal or other elections, to settle private civil disputes arising out of property, monetary disputes, employment disputes and seniority disputes. It may be noticed that by way of rampant misuse, complaints are largely being filed particularly against public servants/ quasi judicial/ judicial officers with oblique motive for satisfaction of vested interests.”
The bench made it clear that the Atrocities Act was never intended to be used as a tool for blackmail or personal vendetta. It also observed that rather than blur caste lines, the Act has been “used to file false complaints to promote caste hatred”, according to The Hindu.
While the 1989 Act denies bail to the accused, the apex court has now decided to permit anticipatory bail where there is no prima facie case. “Unless exclusion of anticipatory bail is limited to genuine cases… there will be no protection available to innocent citizens,” said the bench.
The court cited National Crimes Records Bureau (data from 2015, revealing that while closure reports had been filed in 15-16% of complaints under the Act, over 75 % of court cases had led to acquittals, withdrawals or compounding of all cases.