Was SC/ST Act ‘diluted‘ a decade ago?

The alleged dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has triggered widespread protests but many may not know that the dilution had already taken place way back in 2009, according to experts.

Protests broke out in various parts of the country after the recent Supreme Court ruling that there would be no automatic arrest on any complaint filed under the provision of the SC/ST Act without a preliminary inquiry into the allegations.

However, according to legal experts, the dilution of the SC/ST Act and several other laws took place in 2009 when the then Congress-led UPA government effected a controversial amendment to Section 41 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) in the Parliament and passed the Bill without much discussion.

The amendment, that became effective in 2010, puts restrictions on the powers of the police to arrest a person if the offence is punishable with a maximum imprisonment of up to seven years, and not more.

Originally, under Section 41 of the CrPC, a police officer was empowered to arrest a person with or without the orders from the court in case of a cognizable offence.

Hemant Pandey, a government standing counsel in the high court and director of a law coaching institute, said: “After the amendment, if a cognizable offence is punishable with imprisonment for a term which may be less than seven years or which may extend to seven years, a police officer can exercise the power to arrest a person without an order from the court and without a warrant only when certain conditions are fulfilled.”

“Among the conditions that allow the police to go for arrest even in such cases are: the crime has to be committed in the presence of the police officer, when the arrest is necessary to prevent accused from committing further crime, when the arrest is necessary for proper investigation, and to prevent tampering with the evidence,” he said.

Pandey added in such a situation, the police officer would have to record the reasons for making the arrest in writing.

“Offences under the SC/ST Act, as in many other special laws, are punishable with an imprisonment of less than seven years,” he said and referred to the Arnesh Kumar vs State of Bihar case of 2014 in which the Supreme Court not only ordered against automatic arrest in offences punishable maximum with jail term of seven years but also made it clear that the amended CrPC section was also applicable to special laws like the Dowry Act.

Former director general of police (DGP) of Uttar Pradesh Suklhan Singh said despite the amended Section 41 of the CrPC, police often made arrests under pressure from the media or by wrongly quoting the grounds given in the law.

“In the light of the Supreme Court order, the government may now come with a law to do away with the possibility of applying discretion by the police in making arrests in such cases,” he added.

Singh said there was no need to arrest a person, barring for certain crimes, without prior investigation if the address and identity of the accused was available.