The Union cabinet on Wednesday approved a bill to restore key provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in March.
Facing protests by Dalit groups, opposition parties and even ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) allies, the Union cabinet on Wednesday approved a bill to restore key provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in March.
Union minister of consumer affairs, food and public distribution, Ram Vilas Paswan, who is also a prominent Dalit leader and president of the Lok Janshakti Party, announced the decision and said the bill would be tabled in Parliament during the ongoing monsoon session.
On March 20, the top court had barred automatic arrests under the act, mandated preliminary inquiries before first information reports (FIRs) are registered, and said there would be no bar on anticipatory bail. The judgment triggered widespread protests by Dalit groups, which argued that the verdict had diluted the law meant to protect the marginalised communities from crime and discrimination.
“Central Cabinet under the leadership of Hon’ble Prime Minister took a historical decision today that important changes will be made in the SC & ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 to restore the status as it was prior to the decision of Supreme Court dated 20/3/2018,” Paswan tweeted soon after the decision.
At a press conference, law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad refused to give details of the amendments because issues related to bills and other policy decisions cannot be announced outside Parliament when the House is in session. But Paswan tweeted the three main provisions proposed in the amendments, which included no prior inquiry before registering an FIR, no permission required before arrests, and no provision for anticipatory arrests.
“We expect it (the bill) will be passed with consensus…Whoever opposes will be vanquished.” Paswan told news agency IANS.
Since a nationwide protest by Dalit groups on April 2 that left nine people dead across three states, pressure has built on the BJP to restore the 1989 law to its original form. BJP allies such as the LJP, Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, Republican Party of India (Athawale) and the Janata Dal (United) too joined the chorus against changes in the bill.
The allies also questioned the appointment of justice AK Goel, who was part of the two-member bench that pronounced the verdict, as the chairperson of the National Green Tribunal. Last week, Dalit groups announced a nationwide protest on August 9 demanding that the government reverse the SC order.
The BJP has made several overtures to the Dalits, who make up about 16% of the country’s population,to allay concerns of the community and disprove allegations that its government was anti-Dalit, ahead of the 2019 general election. The Centre filed a review petition in the Supreme Court and several ministers have held out assurances that they would not let the Act get diluted.
The law was first enacted in 1989 and strengthened in 2015, when caste slurs were also brought under its ambit. But the conviction rate under the Act remains low, and was just 15.4% in 2016, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. A convicted person under the Act faces between six months in prison and capital punishment.
The Congress was quick to take credit for the move. “Today, Modi government had to buckle under the pressure from Congress president Rahul Gandhi and organisations working for the welfare of SCs and STs. The government stands defeated in its secret agenda of weakening the laws protecting SCs and STs,” Congress’ chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said.
Writer and political commentator Anand Teltumbde said the government’s decision seemed politically expedient. “It seems the government is concerned by the growing unrest among SCs and STs,” he said.