The Rajya Sabha passed the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of atrocities) Amendment bill 2014 on December 21, 2015. The amendment bill seeks to amend the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. The bill was earlier passed by the Lok Sabha on August 4, 2015, and now has been passed by the upper house of the Parliament.  The President of India had earlier passed the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled castes amendment ordinance 2014 on March 4, 2014. The ordinance had lapsed after the Parliament failed to ratify the bill in next 6 months.

The bill was passed unanimously without a debate as was decided earlier in a all party meeting held on December 18, 2015. The bill seeks to amend certain existing categories in the act and also add new actions to be treated as offence under the act.

  • Provisions regarding elections- Forcing an SC or ST individual to vote or not vote for a particular candidate in a manner that is against the law is an offence under the Act.  The Bill adds that impeding certain activities related to voting will also be considered an offence.  Wrongfully occupying land belonging to a person falling under the category of SCs or STs is an offence under the Act.  The Bill defines ‘wrongful’ in this context, which was not done under the SC and ST prevention of atrocities Act 1989.

The Bill has introduced certain measures for women falling under the category of SC/ST. Assaulting or sexual exploiting an SC or ST woman is an offence under the Act.  The Bill adds that:

(a) Intentionally touching an SC or ST woman in a sexual manner without her consent,

(b) using words, acts or gestures of a sexual nature

 (c) Dedication of an SC or ST women as a devadasi to a temple, or any similar practice will also be considered an offence.  Consent is defined as a voluntary agreement through verbal or non-verbal communication.

New offences added under the proposed amendment Bill includes-

(a) Garlanding with footwear

 (b) Compelling of any person to dispose or carry human or animal carcasses, or do manual scavenging

(c) Abusing a person belonging to the category of SCs or STs by caste name in public

 (d) Attempting to promote feelings of ill-will against SCs or STs or disrespecting any deceased person held in high esteem

 (e) By anyways imposing or threatening a social or economic boycott based on caste.

  • Preventing  persons falling under the category of SCs or STs from undertaking the following activities will be considered an offence: using common property resources, entering any place of worship that is open to the public, and entering an education or health institution.
  • The court shall presume that the accused was aware of the caste or tribal identity of the victim if the accused had personal knowledge of the victim or his family, unless the contrary is proved.
  • Role of public servants:  The Act specifies that a non SC or ST public servant who neglects his duties relating to SCs or STs shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term of six months to one year.  The Amendment Bill- specifies these duties, including: registering a complaint or FIR (First Information Report) reading out information given orally, before taking the signature of the informant and giving a copy of this information to the informant, etc.
  • Role of courts:  Under the Act, a court of Session at the district level is deemed a Special Court to provide speedy trials for offences.  A Special Public Prosecutor is appointed to conduct cases in this court.  Amendment- The Bill substitutes this provision and specifies that an Exclusive Special Court must be established at the district level to try offences under the Bill.  In districts with fewer cases, a Special Court may be established to try offences.  An adequate number of courts must be established to ensure that cases are disposed of within two months.  Appeals of these courts shall lie with the high court, and must be disposed of within three months.  A Public Prosecutor and Exclusive Public Prosecutor shall be appointed for every Special Court and Exclusive Special Court respectively.  The courts established under the Bill may take certain measures such as: concealing the names of witnesses, taking immediate action in respect of any complaint relating to harassment of a victim, informant or witness, etc.  Any such complaint shall be tried separately from the main case and be concluded within two months.
  • Rights of the victims and witnesses:  The Bill adds a chapter on the rights of victims and witness.  It shall be the duty of the state to make arrangements for the protection of victims, their dependents and witnesses.  The state government shall specify a scheme to ensure the implementation of rights of victims and witnesses.

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, will now be presented to the President of India for his assent. Once the bill receives the assent of the President the bill shall become an act and the proposed act would stand amended. The Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Union Minister of Social Justice Thaawar Chand on July 16, 2014.

Image Courtesy: Getty Images