A two-judge Bench of Justice Dr. DY Chandrachud and Justice BV Nagarathna has held that sub-sections (3) and (5) of Section 15A of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 are mandatory in nature.
The Bench has noted in its Judgment that it is due to shoddy investigations and negligence of prosecuting advocates that many of the perpetrators of caste-based atrocities are acquitted unpunished.
Counsel Mr. Ajit Kumar Thakur appeared for the Appellant, Counsel Mr. Manish Sharma appeared for the First Respondent and Counsel Mr. Chetanya Singh appeared for the State of Rajasthan.
An appeal was preferred against the order of the Rajasthan High Court which had granted bail to the First Respondent who was charged under Sections 302 and 201 of IPC and also offences punishable under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act were included since the deceased belonged to a SC community.
In this case, the First Respondent was accused of committing murder along with other co-accused amongst who was Kishan Lal, the brother-in-law of the deceased. It was contended that Kishan Lal had obtained an insurance policy in the name of the deceased and murder was committed to obtain the proceeds of the insurance policy.
The Appellant had moved before the High Court for the cancellation of bail granted to the First Respondent on the ground that no notice was issued to the Appellant by under section 15A(3) of the SC/ST Act. It was further contended that no opportunity to be heard was provided to the Appellant under Section 15A (5) of the SC/ST Act, hence the bail must be canceled. However, his application for cancellation was rejected.
The Apex Court after considering the contentions of the parties at length made the following observations –
"Investigations in India are the exclusive domain of the police, where victims are often relegated to the role of being a spectator in the criminal justice system. Victims of crime often face significant hurdles during investigation and prosecution. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes specifically suffer on account of procedural lapses in the criminal justice system."
"Due to the fear of retribution from members of upper caste groups, ignorance or police apathy, many victims do not register complaints in the first place. If victims or their relatives muster up the courage to approach the police, the police officials are reluctant to register complaints or do not record allegations accurately. Eventually, if the case does get registered, the victims and witnesses are vulnerable to intimidation, violence and social and economic boycott."
"On the contrary, the reality is that many acquittals are a result of improper investigation and prosecution of crime, leading to insufficient evidence. This is evident from the low percentage of cases attracting the application of the provisions of the Penal Code relating to false complaints as compared to the rate of acquittals."
The Court while reiterating to certain precedents held that Section 15A was introduced to protect the rights of the victims and witnesses whose rights as equal beneficiaries of the criminal justice system are often overlooked due to their weak social position.
The Bench was in full agreement with the Appellant observing that there had been a clear infraction of the mandate of the SC/ST Act as no opportunity of being heard was provided to the Appellant in terms of the provisions of Section 15A of the Act.
The Court rejected the finding of the Single Judge of the High Court that defect in not issuing the notice to the victim of their dependant and not according to them with an opportunity of being heard (grant of bail) could be cured by providing them a hearing in the subsequent hearing (cancellation of bail)
"Atrocities against members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are not a thing of the past. They continue to be a reality in our society even today. Hence the statutory provisions which have been enacted by Parliament as a measure of protecting the constitutional rights of persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes must be complied with and enforced conscientiously. There has been an evident breach of the statutory requirements embodied in sub-sections (3) and (5) of Section 15A in the present case," the Court observed.
The Court also emphasized that recording reasons by a judge is not a task in formality, but an exercise of judicial accountability and transparency, which makes the decision available for further scrutiny at the touchstone of reason and justice.
In the light of these observations, the Court set aside the order of the High Court which had rejected the cancellation bail application of the Appellant, and also set aside the order granting bail to the First Respondent with a direction that the First Respondent shall be taken into custody, and allowed the appeal.