Ministry of Social Justice wants offences dealt with more severely and in a time-bound manner

Imposing a social or economic boycott on persons from a reserved caste or tribe, parading them naked, preventing them from entering a place of worship or employing them as manual scavengers — such offences will now be dealt with more severely and in a time-bound manner, as the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has recommended measures to strengthen the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and Rules 1995.

“We have drawn up a list of recommendations that deal with newer forms of offences and bring within the purview of the Act relevant IPC Offences that attract penalties of less than 10 years. A draft was circulated for inter-ministerial consultations, and we are in the process of drafting a Cabinet note on the proposal to strengthen the Prevention of Atrocities Act,” said an official of the Ministry.

The Ministry is also keen on having dedicated special courts and a 30-day trial to deal with complaints. “The time taken to file a complaint and then to address it is a crucial aspect of the complaint redress. There are designated courts and special public prosecutors appointed to ensure speedy trial, but a review of trials under the Act has shown that all witnesses are not given adequate notice, not briefed appropriately, and not apprised of time, place and status of the case. In all, there is undue delay in disposing of these cases, leading to loss of confidence among the victims in the criminal justice system,” the official said.

Now, the Ministry has recommended that the Act include provisions like appointment of special public prosecutors to try cases exclusively, all cases be disposed of within three months from the date of filing of charge sheet and cases under the Act be given priority in appeals.

Offences that are well documented, but not within the ambit of the Act, such as obstructing the use of common property resources, causing physical harm or death on the allegation of practising witchcraft or abetment should be brought within the purview of the Act, the Ministry has said.

“Another important recommendation is expanding the scope of presumption whether the perpetrator had knowledge of the (SC/ST) identity of the victim while committing the offence. We found a shortcoming in the reading of the Act…: the emphasis on establishing that the offence was committed on ground that the victim was SC or ST. There are numerous cases of the police refusing to register complaints under the Act unless the complainant could establish that the identity of the victim was in fact the ground for committing the offence; in some cases, the police refuse to register a case… because the perpetrator did not overtly use the terms of caste abuse while committing the offence. We have called for tweaking the Act in such a way that the police and the judiciary do not place the onus on the complainant or the prosecution to prove that the accused acted on the basis of caste or tribal identity,” the official said.

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