In a major judgment which would have far-reaching implications, the Supreme Court has held that an arrest is not mandatory under the SC/ST Act. Pointing out that there was a large-scale misuse of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the court also said that the accused person is entitled to anticipatory bail.
A Bench comprising Justices Adarsh K Goel and U U Lalit gave the ruling on a petition that challenged a Bombay High Court order. The appellant Dr Subhash Mahajan had challenged the verdict which had refused to quash an FIR that was filed for his adverse remarks against an SC employee.
The Bench said that from now on, the arrest of any person under the Act would need a written approval from a police officer of the rank of a Senior Superintendent of Police. The officer would have to record reasons as to why an arrest would be necessary.
Where a public servant is involved, approval must come from the appointing authority. Even at the stage of registration of a case, it will be open to police to conduct a preliminary enquiry (by DSP rank officer) and not proceed in cases where allegations are found to be frivolous or motivated, the Bench said.
The court also said when an accused is arrested and produced before a Magistrate, the concerned court can apply its mind to ascertain if a prima facie case under the Act is made out. Based on its conclusion, further remand or detention of the accused can be refused. Section 18 of the 1989 Act did not allow an accused to get anticipatory bail. The court, however, removed this bar and said that the provision will not apply to such cases where no case is made out or the allegations are patently false or motivated. The court held that this was necessary to prevent blackmail of public servants from discharging their official functions. The court also said that common citizens too are faced with the threat of jail and surrender of civil rights and hence this bar had to be removed.
The court relied on the data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau. In 2015, nearly 16 per cent of the cases ended with closure reports being filed. Over 75 per cent ended either in acquittal or withdrawal.
In 2016, 5,347 such cases were found to be false against the Scheduled Castes and 912 against Scheduled Tribes. The Annual Report 2016-17 of the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, the Government of India compiled figures to show that in the year 2015, a total of 15,638 cases under the Act were decided by courts across the country of which 11,024 cases resulted in acquittal or discharge and only 4,119 cases resulted in a conviction.
The Bench further said that the underprivileged need to be protected against any atrocities to give effect to the constitutional ideals. At the same time, the said Act cannot be converted into a charter for exploitation or oppression by an unscrupulous person or by police for any extraneous reasons against other citizens. Any harassment of an innocent citizen, irrespective of caste or religion, is against the guarantee of the Constitution. This court must enforce this guarantee. Law should not result in caste hatred, the Bench said.