Several states were rocked by violence and clashes yesterday following a 'Bharat Bandh' call given by several SC/ST organisations protesting the top court's March 20 order, that has claimed eight lives so far.
"We have said that innocents should not be penalised. The innocents cannot be terrorised by the provisions of the SC/ST Act. We don't want to deprive anyone from right to life and we make ourselves very clear that we are not against the Act or the complainants," a bench of Justices Adarsh Kumar Goel and U U Lalit said.
The apex court refused to accept the submission of Attorney General K K Venugopal, appearing for Centre, and Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing Maharashtra, to keep the March 20 verdict in abeyance till it decided the review petition.
The court said by its verdict "provisions of anticipatory bail have been introduced as, unlike other laws, no forum was available for the innocents to seek remedy under the Act".
The bench also clarified that there was no dilution of any provision of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, or Rules and said a compensation can be paid to the alleged victims of atrocities even prior to the registration of FIR under the law.
It said the only offences mentioned in the SC/ST Act were the subject matter of the judgement and other cognisable offences under IPC would not require inquiry before registration of FIR.
The bench asked the Attorney General whether he can function if any unverified allegation is levelled against him under the Act or could any public servant work if such averments made against him or her.
"No, they can't work. Rights of innocents cannot be taken away without giving any remedy to them," it said, adding "people who are agitating may have not read the order. They might not know what is in the order or they may have been misled with people having vested interest".
During the hour long hearing, the bench said the Act which had come under scrutiny does not mandate immediate arrest on filing of a complaint as it was a substantive law.
The Attorney General said the court has proceeded on the premise that there was a gross misuse of the law. He said the court had given a 7-day period for verification of averments made by the complainant which means an FIR cannot be lodged till then.
"We have said that maximum time for verification of complaint is seven days as no innocent citizen shall be penalised or arrested. You can do it in ten minutes or half an hour and register the FIR. We don't want that fundamental rights of innocents taken away. You have to see how many innocents were put in jail under the Act," the bench said.
It said the mandate of the court was to protect the constitutional and fundamental rights of citizens which have "to be kept at the highest pedestal".
Venugopal said that hundreds of crores worth property have been damaged and several lives have been lost in the large scale violence which started after the verdict. Article 21 of the Constitution also applied to victims of atrocities who needed to be protected.
"Yes, it applies to all. Arrest is not necessary even on filing of a complaint under the Act as it is a substantive law. We have not diluted any provision of SC/ST Act and only given effect what was in the Act to only safeguard the interests of the innocents from being arrested," the bench said.
The AG said it was Parliament which makes the law and it believes that SC/ST community needs to be protected from the atrocities.
The bench said it has never directed to acquit or discharge the accused in genuine cases under the Act but have reiterated what is the settled law under the CrPC.
"Liberty of the innocents cannot be allowed to be taken away. If no forum is there, then some forum in court has to be there to protect the interest of innocent citizens.
Senior Advocate Amrendra Sharan, who was appointed amicus curiae in the matter, opposed the Centre's review petition and said the verdict had even dealt with the data and report of the parliamentary committee submitted by the government.
He said the Centre's review petition cannot be an appeal against the March 20 verdict unless there is a patent error and no provision of the Act has been diluted or read down.
The bench said through the verdict, some filters have been put in place which are not against the basic tenet of law.
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