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SC ST ACT & THE DISPENSABLE “Public view”

INTRODUCTION

What is even more daunting than most of the heinous crimes is the fact that the majority of them are being committed against the most vulnerable sections of our society – the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC & ST). In order to overcome this pressing issue, the Indian Parliament passed the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989[1]. The relevant section of the Act that deals with caste-based abuse and insult can be read as follows:

  1. Punishments for offences of atrocities(1) Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe,—

(r) intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view;

(s) abuses any member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe by caste name in any place within public view; shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to five years and with a fine.[2]

What is to be regarded as “in any place within public view” had come up for consideration before this Court in Swaran Singh & Ors. v. State through Standing Counsel & Ors[3]. The Court had drawn a distinction between the expression “public place” and “in any place within public view”. It was held that if the offence is committed outside the building e.g., on a lawn outside a house, and the lawn can be seen by someone from the road or lane outside the boundary wall, the lawn would certainly be a place within the public view. Also, even if the remark is made inside a building, but some members of the public are there (not merely relatives or friends) then also it would be an offence since it is in public view. We must, therefore, not confuse the expression “in any place within public view” with the expression “public place”. A place can be a private place but yet within the public view.

INTERPRETING “ANY PLACE WITHIN PUBLIC VIEW

It shall be mentioned that while interpreting Sections the phrase “in any place within public view” as provided under the SC ST Act. we have to see the purpose for which the Act was enacted. The Act was enacted to improve the social economic conditions of the vulnerable sections of society as they have been subjected to various offences such as indignities, humiliation and harassment. It was thus, obviously made to prevent indignities, humiliation and harassment to the members of the SC/ST community, as is evident from the Statement of Objects & Reasons of the Act. Hence, while interpreting the said Sections of the Act, we have to take into account the legislative intent behind the words “in any place within public view” which is used instead of various other options such as “in a public place”, “in public view”, “in the presence of a third person”. Any other interpretation may frustrate the very object of the Act, and hence that would not be a correct manner of interpretation.

The Supreme Court in Hariram Bhambhi v. Satyanarayan & Anr[4] categorically stated in para 20 that:

“Atrocities against members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are not a thing of the past. They continue to be a reality in our society even today. Hence the statutory provisions which have been enacted by Parliament as a measure of protecting the constitutional rights of persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes must be complied with and enforced conscientiously.”

Section 3(1)(r) and 3(1)(s) do not provide the condition of “public place within public view”, but provide for “any place within public view”. This distinction is critical. With the caveat of “any place”, the Act itself provides for a scope of an expansive interpretation.[5]

The Act is a social welfare legislation and has been specifically passed to protect the constitutional rights of members of the Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe communities as guaranteed under Article 15 and Article 17 of the Constitution[6]. The Statement and Objects to the 2014 amendment of the Act also observe that the atrocities against members of the Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe communities still continue to be at disturbing levels. The context of the passing of the Act is what differentiates it from any other penal statute. An offence under the said Act is only committed against the members of Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe because of the community they belong to. As held earlier by the Supreme Court, this is a direct attack on the dignity of the individual and against the idea of fraternity as provided in the Constitution. Hence, the Act is not merely a penal statute but also a remedial statute. The duty of the court is to balance the interpretation of the Act in a way that meets the intended outcome.[7]

UNWARRANTED MISCONCEPTION OF MISUSE OF THE ACT

On the other hand, the justification for interpreting the provisions very stringently could be due to the alleged misuse of the Act. However, the Apex Court in Dr Subhash Kashinath Mahajan v. State of Maharashtra & Anr.[8] issued certain directions in respect of investigations required to be conducted under the Act. In a review filed by the Union against the said judgment, this Court in Union of India v. State of Maharashtra & Ors.[9] reviewed the directions issued by this Court and held that:

There is no presumption that the members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes may misuse the provisions of law as a class and it is not resorted to by the members of the upper castes or the members of the elite class. For lodging a false report, it cannot be said that the caste of a person is the cause. It is due to human failure and not due to the caste factor. Caste is not attributable to such an act. On the other hand, members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes due to backwardness hardly muster the courage to lodge even a first information report, much less, a false one. In case it is found to be false/unsubstantiated, it may be due to the faulty investigation or for other various reasons including human failings irrespective of caste factor.

Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes specifically suffer on account of procedural lapses in the criminal justice system. Due to the fear of retribution from members of upper caste groups, ignorance or police apathy, many victims do not register complaints in the first place. If victims or their relatives muster up the courage to approach the police, the police officials are reluctant to register complaints or do not record allegations accurately. Eventually, if the case does get registered, the victims and witnesses are vulnerable to intimidation, violence and social and economic boycott.[10] Further, many perpetrators of caste-based atrocities get away scot-free due to shoddy investigations and the negligence of prosecuting advocates.[11] This results in low conviction rates under the SC/ST Act giving rise to the erroneous perception that cases registered under the Act are false and that it is being misused. On the contrary, the reality is that many acquittals are a result of improper investigation and prosecution of crime, leading to insufficient evidence. This is evident from the low percentage of cases attracting the application of the provisions of the Penal Code relating to false complaints as compared to the rate of acquittals.[12]

CONCLUSION

In a recent Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs of Rajya Sabha in its – Report on Atrocities and Crimes Against Women and Children, 2021 observed:

“The high acquittal rate motivates and boosts the confidence of dominant and powerful communities for continued perpetuation. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the Ministry of Home Affairs must make holistic efforts towards sensitizing concerned public authorities and people at large through regular training and sensitization programmes. The Committee strongly recommends that the law enforcement agencies (LEA) should include the provisions of the PoA Act while registering cases of rape, sexual harassment, etc., committed against SC/ST women.”[13] Hence, the courts shall look and interpret the Act in the light of the aim of the Act and the constitutional provisions to safeguard the historically marginalised sections of the society and therefore give the phrase “in any place within public view” a wide and liberal interpretation that includes each and every place even without the presence of a third party, one that full-fills the objective of the Act and safeguards the dignity of these vulnerable communities.

Author(s) Name: Pavitra Kumar Nim (Campus Law Center, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi)

References: 

[1] Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Swaran Singh & Ors. v State through Standing Counsel & Ors. (2008) 8 SCC 435.

[4] Hariram Bhambhi v Satyanarayan & Anr,(2021) Criminal Appeal No. 1278/2021.

[5]Reshabh Bajaj, ‘Interpreting the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act: A missed opportunity?’ (Bar and Bench, 02 July 2020) <https://www.barandbench.com/columns/interpreting-scst-prevention-of-atrocities-act-and-missed-opportunities> accessed 16th October, 2022

[6] Constitution of India, 1950

[7]Ibid.

[8] Dr Subhash Kashinath Mahajan v State of Maharashtra &Anr. (2018) 6 SCC 454.

[9] Union of India v State of Maharashtra & Ors. (2020) 4 SCC 761.

[10]C Prabhu, ‘Protecting the Rights of Victims and Witnesses in Caste-Based Atrocities, (Centre for Law and Policy Research, 15 September 2020) <https://clpr.org.in/blog/protecting-the-rights-of-victims-witnesses-in-caste-based-atrocities/> accessed 24th October 2022.

[11]Subhradipta Sarkar, ‘The Quest for Victims’ Justice in India(2010) 17(2) Human Rights Brief 16-20.

[12]Sthabir Khora, Misconstruction of the Anti-atrocites Act’s Misuse’, (2018) 53 (15) Economic and Political Weekly.

[13] Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs of Rajya Sabha, Atrocities and Crimes Against Women and Children (No. 230 2021) 2.20.10 <https://rajyasabha.nic.in/rsnew/Committee_site/Committee_File/ReportFile/15/143/230_2021_3_14.pdf> accessed 24th October, 2021.