The Supreme Court on March 20 issued rules to check police acting on false criminal complaints filed against public and private employees under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, a stringent law introduced in 1989 to punish those who offend indigenous and former untouchable people.
Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi, the heartland of indigenous people in central India, said the move had made the law ineffective. "What is the use of this law now?" he asked.
The original law was meant to protect the human rights and dignity of groups who have been oppressed and subjected to social and economic deprivation in caste-ridden Indian society.
The law made it all caste-based abuses a punishable crime. Offenses included denying the groups access to water sources or forest rights, using them for manual scavenging or even abusing them by using their caste names or denying them jobs or promotions because of their background.
The new guidelines say police can arrest public servants only after getting written permission from their appointing authority. In the case of private employees, the complainant must get permission from the senior superintendent of police.
In addition, the court said a preliminary inquiry must be conducted before police file a complaint. The guidelines also require police to decide if the case can be dealt with under the Atrocities Act.
These steps are necessary to "avoid false implication of an innocent" by misusing the law and to make sure the "allegations are not frivolous or motivated," Justices A.K. Goel and U.U. Lalit said.
The court's guidelines came after a petition filed by Subhash Kashinath Mahajan against a Bombay High Court judgment refusing to quash a police charge against him under the Atrocities Act.
As director of technical education in Maharashtra state in 2016, Mahajan refused to grant permission to prosecute two of his employees who were accused of violating the law.
The issue before the court was "whether any unilateral allegation of mala fide [in bad faith] can be grounds to prosecute officers who dealt with the matter in an official capacity and, if such an allegation is falsely made, what protection is available against such abuse," the judges said.
Bishop Vincent Barwa of Simdega, who heads the Indian bishops' office for indigenous people, believes the "order has crippled the law so much that it has now become toothless."
"It has totally deprived the poor of the benefits and protections guaranteed in the original law," he told ucanews.com on March 26.
If the guidelines allow the police to decide the merit of a complaint, "it is impossible for our people to get justice under this law," he said, noting that police can easily be influenced by the powerful.
Most of India's 104 million indigenous people are "illiterate and ignorant of technicalities of law" and will not be able to approach higher officials seeking the arrest of lower ones who violated their rights, he said.
Bishop Barwa said the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government that came to power in New Delhi four years ago has been "systematically suppressing and taking away the rights" of indigenous and Dalit people. "Now the judiciary too has joined the move … which is very not a very good sign."
Christian leaders say the BJP and its affiliated Hindu groups are working to establish higher-caste Hindu hegemony in India and do not care about Dalit people.
The latest records of the National Crime Records Bureau data show that at least six Dalit women are raped every day in India and atrocities against lower-caste and indigenous people occur every 15 minutes.
However, conviction rates are extremely low at 2-6 percent, Udit Raj, a BJP parliamentarian and Dalit activist, said in a column in the Indian Express. The new guidelines dilute the law, he said.
Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar said the message of the new court order is that indigenous people and Dalits should "no longer raise their voice and protest against anyone and anything. There is no legal protection and safeguard for them."
The ethnic-minority archbishop said the government no longer wants these poor people to survive. "Only higher-caste and powerful will survive and the rest of the poor and the oppressed will be eliminated," he said.
Some members of the ruling coalition, including Minister of State for Social Justice Ramdas Athawale, who heads the Republican Party of India, want a review of the guidelines.
The Congress and other opposition parties also asked the federal government to seek a review. They threatened to launch a nationwide protest if the government failed to do so.