The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989
The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (POA) and its predecessors – the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955 and the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 – are rooted in Articles 15 and 17 of the Indian Constitution. Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste. Article 17 of the Constitution of India states that ‘Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of “Untouchability” shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law’.
It was enacted on 11 September 1989 (Act 33 of 1989) by the Parliament of India. The Act is popularly known as the SC/ST Act, POA, or the Atrocities Act. The Act was notified in the Gazette of India, Extraordinary, Part II, sec. 3(ii), dated 29 January 1990 (notification No. S.O. 106(E)) and came into force on 30 January 1990. The 1989 Act underwent substantial amendments in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018, and 2019. As of 1 April 2023, the Act was last amended on 31 October 2019.
In passing the Act, the parliament acknowledged that existing laws, including the Indian Penal Code 1860 (IPC), were inadequate to check the caste based indignities and hate crimes (defined as ‘atrocities’ in Section 3 of the Act) perpetrated on the scheduled communities by the non-scheduled communities. The statement of objects and reasons appended to the Bill while moving the same in the Parliament, reads
‘despite various measures to improve the socioeconomic conditions of SCs & STs, they remain vulnerable. They are denied a number of civil rights; they are subjected to various offences, indignities, humiliations and harassment. They have, in several brutal incidents, been deprived of their life and property. Serious atrocities are committed against them for various historical, social, and economic reasons’.
The objectives of the Act clearly emphasise the intention of the Act is for the government to deliver justice to the scheduled communities through preventive and proactive efforts. The preamble of the Act states that the Act is
‘to prevent the commission of offences of atrocities against the members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, to provide for Special Courts for the trial of such offences and for the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of such offences and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto’.
The Act brought the crimes against the scheduled communities directly to the notice of the highest political, civil, executive, and judicial officers of the state and district. At the state level it involves the chief minister directly monitoring implementation of the Act every January and July, together with a High Level State Vigilance and Monitoring Committee (SVMC), comprising the ministers and principal secretaries of social welfare, home, the director general of police (DGP), head of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes protection cell (normally the additional director general of police, ADGP), director of public prosecutions (DPP), with specific roles to be executed in specific timeframes.
The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2013, which comprehensively overhauled the parent Act and Rules was introduced in parliament on 12 December 2013, but could not be taken up for discussion. Therefore, the Amendment Ordinance 2014 [1 of 2014] was promulgated by the president on 4 March 2014 – the last day before the model code of conduct for parliamentary elections came into force – and came into force immediately. Unsurprisingly, dominant communities campaigned for the total repeal of the Act during the parliamentary elections.
Since the ordinance was not ratified by parliament within six months, it lapsed and was then referred back to the cabinet. The virtually unchanged ordinance was reintroduced as an amendment bill in parliament on 7 July 2014 and referred to the standing committee on 17 July 2014. Subsequently, it was passed by the Lok Sabha on 4 August 2015 and then by the Rajya Sabha in December 2015. The amendments received presidential assent on 31 December 2015, was notified as Act 1 of 2016 on 1 January 2016 in the Gazette of India Extraordinary, and came into force on 26 January 2016.
The Amendment Act, 2015 [1 of 2016] added several new offences in Section 3 and (bizarrely) renumbered the entire section, probably because the recognised crime almost doubled. It added a schedule for Section 3(2)(va) clarifying the offences under IPC sections to be invoked. Dereliction of duty by officials was more precisely defined in Section 4(2). Section 14 was tweaked to ensure time bound trials, and Section 14A was added for time bound appeals. The new Chapter IVA Section 15A defined the rights of victims and witnesses (trailblazing in India), and the duty of the state and state mechanisms to protect those rights starting with the right to be treated with respect. The Amendment Act, 2015 came into effect on 26 January 2016.
The Amendment Act, 2018 [27 of 2018] was triggered by the verdict by a two judge bench of Justices UU Lalit and AK Goel of the Supreme Court of India in Subhash Kashinath Mahajan v. State of Maharashtra & Anr. on 20 March 2018 which banned immediate arrest of a person accused of insulting or injuring a member of a scheduled community to prevent arbitrary arrest. The judgement was perceived to considerably dilute the Act and thereby deny justice. It resulted in a furore which, in turn, led to a stunned parliament voting to override the judgement.
In August 2018, the parliament passed the Amendment Act, 2018 (with effect from 20 August 2018) removing the requirement for preliminary inquiry for registering an FIR and removing the need for approval before arrest of officials by inserting section 18A(1)(a) ‘preliminary enquiry shall not be required for registration of an FIR against any person’ and section 18A(1)(b), ‘the investigating officer shall not require approval for the arrest, if necessary, of any person against whom an accusation of having committed an offence under this Act has been made and no procedure, other than that provided under this Act or the Code, shall apply’.
The 2018 amendments to the Act categorically rule out anticipatory bail for any person accused of atrocities against the scheduled communities, notwithstanding any court order. The Amendment Act, 2018 (No. 27 of 2018), was notified in the Gazette of India, Extraordinary on 17 August 2018 and enforced on 20 August 2018. On 10 February 2020 the Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutional validity of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2018.
On 31 October 2019, Section 1(2) was amended to extend the Act to the whole of India.
The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules, 1995
The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules, 1995 were notified on 31 March 1995 – some five and a half years after the Act [G.S.R. 316(E), published in the Gazette of India, Extra, Part II, Section 3(i), dated 31 March 1995]. As of 1 April 2023, the rules were last amended on 27 June 2018.
The rules underwent substantial amendments in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2018. In addition, there were periodic amendments to the rules (for instance G.S.R. 896(E) on 23 December 2011 and G.S.R 416(E) on 23 June 2014) to enhance relief and rehabilitation.
The Amendment Rules, 2013 [G.S.R. 725 (E) dated 8 November 2013] inserted Rule 17A that added vigilance and monitoring committees at the sub-divisional level, and provided for nominees of the union government in the vigilance and monitoring committees.
The Scheduled Castes and The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Rules 2016 [G.S.R. 424(E) dated 14 April 2016] broadly relate to:
- A comprehensive list of 47 offences.
- Rationalised payment of relief.
- Enhancement of the minimum relief amount between Rs. 85,000 to Rs. 8,25,000 depending upon the nature of the offence.
- Payment of relief within seven days.
- Linking pension to the dearness allowance of government employees.
- Completion of investigation and filing of charge sheet within sixty days to enable timely commencement of prosecution.
- Periodic review of the scheme for the rights and entitlements of victims and witnesses in accessing justice, by the State, District, and Sub-divisional Level Vigilance and Monitoring Committees in their respective meetings.
The Rules were further amended by G.S.R. 588(E) dated 27 June 2018 to
- Clarify through amended Rule 12(5) that the relief provided in the Rule 15(1) contingency plan and Rule 12(4) Annexe Schedule I in case of death, injury, rape, gang rape, unnatural offences, grievous hurt by throwing acid etc., damage to property, shall be in addition to any other right to claim compensation in respect thereof under any other law.
- Removed the restriction of 25 members in the State Vigilance and Monitoring Committee [Rule 16(1)].
- Tweaked the relief provisions in the Rule 12(4) Annexe Schedule I to provide for relief to victims of unnatural offences and grievous hurt by throwing acid.
Citizens Vigilance and Monitoring Committees (CVMC) at the state and district levels are civil society mechanisms set up to monitor the implementation of the law, including monitoring the monitors. They shadow the functioning of the DVMCs and SVMC. They function parallely when required to ensure that Dalits and Adivasis can live as full citizens and enjoy the benefits of development and progress. Regular, periodic, systematic assault on the life, person, or property of the scheduled communities – the most vulnerable of our society – are not acceptable and should have zero tolerance in Tamil Nadu, as indeed in any civilised society.
The objective of the CVMCs is to make caste and ethnicity based discrimination and violence into a social issue with a broad based social response, so that it not pigeon-holed into a ‘Dalit’ or ‘Advasi’ issue, to be addressed as a ‘law and order problem’, with the burden falling on the Dalits and the Adivasis alone.
CVMCs enable citizens to fulfil eight of the eleven citizen’s duties under the Constitution of India (Chapter IVA Fundamental duties, Article 51A) namely
a.to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions;
b. to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom;
c. to uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India;
d. to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women;
e. to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture;
f. to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women;
g.to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform
h. to abjure violence;
i. to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement;
The CVMCs will consist primarily of those who are professionals who will be supportive of social justice, but will be independent. They need to be those who have excelled in their spheres, and have considerable social capital and/or name recognition. Though human rights defenders will also be an important part, they will not be centre-staged.
Ideally the composition of the CVMCs would be (non cumulatively) 60% women, 60% professionals, with men and DAHRDs forming a maximum of 40% (non-cumulative). The more professionals and eminent citizen’s express concern, the faster these crimes will stop.
The Role of CVMCs
The Citizens Vigilance and Monitoring Committees at the state and district levels are to ensure that there is an autonomous citizens’ watch on the functioning of the state mechanisms and efficient implementation of the Act. Their role is strategic, to broaden the scope of engagement on social justice in general, and for the DAHRDs in particular.
Their outspoken disapproval of caste and ethnicity based discrimination and violence will reset the norms that valorise these crimes as somehow ‘honorable’ and a ‘duty’ to ‘age-old customs and traditions’ to become more socially just.
Tasks and Periodicity
The role of the CVMC is strategic and their tasks reflect this. They need to be at the forefront of the quarterly meeting with the district mechanisms and the state CVMC need to be there at the half-yearly meeting with the state mechanisms.
The primary tasks of the CVMC are to:
a. Verify the reports and findings of the Dalit Adivasi Human Rights Defenders (DAHRDs).
b. Draw out lessons learnt.
c. Advice as to the follow-up.
d. Engage with the state mechanisms for better implementation (quarterly district wise, and bi-annually at the state level).
e. Release the findings to the general public (district-wise, annual).
f. Attend the annual state / zonal convention and SMARTs (strategic multi-actor round tables).
g. Support and protect the DAHRDs.
h. Meet 4-6 weeks before the DVMC (tentatively 28 February, 31 May, 30 August, 30 November).
i. The state CVMC shall meet half yearly (30 December and 30 June) before the scheduled SVMC meetings to take stock of the progress and engage with the state mechanisms.