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Petitions on amendments made to neutralize a top court verdict for diluting the Act to be heard for three consecutive days

The Supreme Court will hear final arguments on a bunch of petitions that have challenged the recently amended SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act from March 26 for three straight days.

The Centre’s petition seeking review of the Supreme Court’s March 20 verdict in Subhash Kashinath Mahajan V. State of Maharashtra which quashed provisions of the Atrocities Act that mandate immediate arrest of persons accused under offences laid out in the legislation and denial of anticipatory bail to them against these crimes will also be heard by the top court.

The top court’s bench of Justices UU Lalit and Indu Malhotra was scheduled to hear the petitions on Tuesday (February 19). However, Attorney General KK Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, and senior advocates Indira Jaising and Mohan Parasaran, appearing for other petitioners, informed the bench that they would require a substantial time to make their submissions.

Venugopal said that the Centre needs a day’s time to make its arguments defending the amendments made to the Atrocities Act during the Parliament’s monsoon session in August last year and also for enumerating why the March 20 verdict of the apex court by a bench headed by Justice AK Goel (now retired) which had diluted provisions of the Act needs to be reviewed.

The court then said that the petitions can be listed for March 26 and that the bench would hear the submissions for three days in a row, i.e. till March 28.

It may be recalled that the SC/ST Act was amended by the Centre after nationwide protests broke out against the dilution of the legislation that was directed by the Supreme Court. The amendments had restored the provision of immediate arrest of accused booked under the offences laid down in the Act and for denial of anticipatory bail to them.

The court has, however, made no clarification on which of the petitions  – the review petition filed by the Centre or the petitions challenging the amendments made to the Act – it would take up for arguments first. “We have not decided whether we do it together or in a separate manner taking up review petitions, writ petitions or challenge to the amendments,” said Justice Lalit said according to a report by news agency IANS.

Besides, the Centre’s review petition and other pleas that have sought a recall of the March 20 verdict, the court is also set to hear arguments on petitions filed by lawyers Prathvi Raj Chauhan and Priya Sharma who have challenged the amendment made to the Act for neutralizing the top court’s judgment. Chauhan and Sharma have alrgued in their respective petitions that the government brought the amendments under pressure from alliance partners and for political mileage with an eye on the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The March 20 verdict had held that the police will hold an inquiry to ascertain the veracity of a complaint filed under the Act before acting on it and said that the existing provision of immediate arrest was being abused. The verdict, authored by Justice Goel, had made it imperative for prior sanction to be sought before prosecuting an officer for a complaint under the SC/ST Act.

While hearing the Centre’s review petition last year, the Court had stated that it had only reiterated the settled law of arrest while passing the controversial judgment. It had refused to stay its judgment, while observing so.

The nationwide protests by Dalit groups that broke out in the immediate aftermath of the Subhash Kashinath verdict and claimed at least nine lives had put Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on notice. In ominous signs for the Modi government, the protests had the support of key BJP allies – Union ministers Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athawale and Upendra Kushwaha – as well as several MPs from the saffron party.

Dalit and tribal communities account for nearly 16 and 9 per cent of India’s population respectively. They form a massive electoral bloc in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh, besides holding the power to swing electoral results in at least half a dozen other states. The price that the centre would have paid for failing to reverse the SC verdict was, thus, unambiguous– lose support of a sizeable section of these communities in the forthcoming general elections and risk swift erosion of the brute mandate that the BJP and its NDA partners got in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

The centre’s decision to appoint Justice AK Goel – the author of the controversial verdict that diluted the Atrocities Act – as chairman of the NGT immediately after his retirement from the Supreme Court had also been red-flagged by Paswan, Athawale and Kushwaha as a reward for protecting upper castes at the cost of Dalits and tribals. The Union ministers had initially pressed for Goel’s dismissal from the NGT but eventually dropped the demand.

—India Legal Bureau

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