The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

SC order in SC/ST Act Case : A Glaring Moment to Ask the Social Question

Jyoti Shankar Nayak, Class of 2019

On Wednesday the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgement questioning provisions of a 1989 act on Prevention of Atrocities against SCs and STs. Expressing concerns about the rampant misuse of the act to “blackmail” “innocent people”, the apex court laid out a list of guidelines to protect public servants and private employees from legal harassment.

Representational purposes only.

This judgement rests on the first principle of jurisprudence. For a judicious trial, the accused has to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The right of an accused to get a fair trial not only keeps the legitimacy of the juridical infrastructure intact but also profoundly undergirds the right of an individual qua individual. Having a categorical emphasis on Article 19 and 21 of the Constitution, the judgement reiterates this primacy of individual rights. It articulates anxiety over the stringent provisions of the law — that make certain offences prima facie non-bailable — being used as clauses to not only deprive someone of comprehensive liberty but also put unfair checks on bureaucratic rituals. The law, in this sense, becomes more of a plot for legal entrapment than what its protective intentions aspire. Citing statistics from the NCRB data, the Apex Court refuses to overlook the glaring correlation between growing number of cases filed under the SC/ST act and diminishing rate of convictions. The judgement chooses to read this correlation as patterned harassment.

This judgement is contentiously significant for three possible debates that it demands.

First, this judgement recognises statistics to be a vector in the jurisprudential matrix. Albeit to what extent legality can be dictated using empirical statistics would remain debatable, still, such a method is not unprecedented. Yet, the manner in which the Supreme Court interpreted the data seems logically fallacious. The data in question is this: while on the one hand, we see a marked growth of the number of cases filed under the PoA act in recent years, more than 75% of the cases result in acquittals or withdrawals. The rate conviction has marked a sharp fall from around 38% in 2010 to 16% in 2016 for SCs and from 26% to 8% for STs. This according to the judgement provides reasonable indications of the law being misused.

However, to put the data into perspective, conviction rates for all cases filed under IPC have declined sharply over years. The conviction rates for ordinary cases like cheating, extortion, and arson unimpressively stand at 20%, 19%, and 16% respectively. The validity of such laws hardly face critique as low conviction rates are also indicators of poor police and judicial infrastructure. Yet, why in cases under Prevention of Atrocities, or Domestic Violence, low conviction per se is understood in terms of mala fide intention of the plaintiff indicates the unreasonable biases.

Statistics hardly speak for themselves; they provoke. And the Supreme Court seemed to have been lured by that provocation as it fails to see alternative truths lurking in its own backyard. The same data which leads to the inference of rampant misuse could possibly be interpreted as consequences of the judicial logjam and inefficiency of local administration. Because, rather than the rate of conviction or false cases, what is more startling is the rate of disposal and pendency — which paints a hazy picture of Indian judiciary as an upholder of justice.

Second, as the Apex Court walks an extra mile to uphold the rights of an accused, questions on the protection of victims also demand equal attention from the same logic of fair trial. Literature that demonstrates how cases of atrocities are forcibly closed or settled outside court is in abundance. Worse, most instances of atrocities even fail to get reported on account of “caste-biases among investigative officers”. Judicial delay also plays a pivotal role in disincentivising a rigorous pursuit of a case. Under such a climate of pessimism, filing an FIR should be understood more as a political act than a legal one. The politics here aims at contesting the entrenched power relations in the sphere of the social. This politics is crucial in the transition from the authority of custom to the authority of law. The earlier provisions of the 1989 acts at some level had emboldened this politics.

The judgement in its zeal towards achieving a casteless society couldn’t fathom that it is the demands of politics — not the accuracy of legal equations — that diffused the meaning and importance of caste in Indian society. On the face of it, the judicial overreach of this judgement seems to intrude into the legislature. But more importantly, it trespasses into the political, in the broader sense of the term.

Third, this judgement also unintentionally underlines the limitation of legal apparatus to penetrate and alter the social landscape. The nature the PoA act aims to undo the pervasive inequities in Indian society. This law implicitly claims superior authority over social norms. So, the SC’s own acknowledgement of its insufficiency and misuse raises questions on not only its effectivity but also on moral authority. Can we read those instances of misuse as resistance of the social to the legal ? While this law tries to reshape the social as per elite notion of egalitarian order, its strategic tweaking may be interpreted as attempts from below to subsume the law into the logic of the social. Beyond doubt, the social question needs vigorous debate, but whether courtrooms are to be considered as the right arena has to be asked.

Jyoti Shankar Nayak is part of the Undergraduate Batch of 2019. He is currently studying Politics and Society at Ashoka University. He is particularly interested in the understanding facets of human condition.

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