The Supreme Court is assessing the constitutional validity of Parliament’s 2018 Amendment to the Prevention of Atrocities Act. The Court asks whether the amendment violates the principles of the presumption of innocence and fair and just procedure. Judgment has been reserved.
The petitioners have challenged the constitutional validity of the Section 18A of the Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,1989, introduced by the 2018 Amendment to the Act. The Court will assess whether Section 18A violates the fundamental rights to equality, life and liberty guaranteed by Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.
Further, the Court will examine if the Amendment violates the principle of judicial review, a basic feature of the Constitution. The Amendment directly undid a Supreme Court order.
In 2018, Parliament introduced Section 18A to overturn safeguards introduced by the Supreme Court in its Kashinath Mahajan judgment. Section 18A undoes all three of the safeguards introduced:
The safeguards from the Kashinath Mahajan judgment were intended to prevent people from abusing the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. They were a response to the allegedly rising number of false charges being filed using the Act. The safeguards aimed to ensure that people accused under the Prevention of Atrocities Act are not presumed guilty and denied reasonable procedure.
Immediately after the judgment was delivered, Parliament moved to undo it. The judgment caused violent protests. Dalit and Adivasi groups organised massive rallies that unfortunately resulted in several deaths. Fearing the fall out, the State pushed through the 2018 Amendment. The outcry was so severe that Parliament did not even wait for the Supreme Court to hear a review petition challenging the judgment.
On 7 September 2018, a Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan issued a notice to the Centre to file their response to this petition. On 29.10.2018, the Central Government filed an affidavit stating that the Parliament is competent to bring about the amendment to the Act. The Affidavit further records that high rates on acquittals in cases filed under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act cannot be the basis for the assumption that a majority of the cases filed under it are false.
On 24 January 2019, the Court clubbed the petitions challenging the 2018 Amendment with the review petitions challenging Kashinath Mahajan. It is unusual for writ petitions to be heard together with review petitions, as review petitions have a much narrower scope.
On 1 May 2019, the Court reserved judgment.
1) Is the absolute bar on grant of anticipatory bail for the accused arbitrary and unjust, violating Article 14 of the Constitution?
2) Does the bar on anticipatory bail infringe the personal liberty of an individual who has been booked under the Act without any ground?
3) Does the power of automatic arrest violate the safeguards under sections 41 and 41A of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1908? Does it violates the protection of reasonable procedure under Article 21 of the Constitution?