Supreme Court judge defends verdict on SC/ST Act

Everyone has the right to seek protection from arrest, says Justice Goel on his final day in office

Supreme Court judge, Justice A.K. Goel, in his farewell speech on Friday justified his controversial March 20 verdict which overrode the written law to grant anticipatory bail to those accused of Dalit atrocities.

The judgment led to widespread violence and protests across the country leading to several deaths. The Centre had to finally return to the Supreme Court for a review.

The 89-page verdict by a Bench of Justices A.K. Goel and U.U. Lalit had read down Section 18 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 to allow accused persons under the Act to apply for anticipatory bail. Section 18 barred persons accused of causing casteist injury and insult to Dalits from seeking anticipatory bail.

Justice Goel defended the verdict that he had authored for the Bench on his last working day while speaking to a crowd of Supreme Court judges, former judges and lawyers. He said that a judge does not normally speak about his judgment, but he would do so as he is a “free man” now.

He said the courts should “wind up” if they are unable to protect the fundamental rights of due process, life and liberty. A person cannot be denied his right to seek protection from arrest under any law.

Justice Goel said his judgment was intended to protect an innocent man, falsely accused under the Dalit Atrocities Act, from going to jail.

He recalled how Justice H.R. Khanna had defied the written law of the time to protect innocents from arbitrary arrest. He said he had the same thought while writing the judgment.

Justice Khanna’s lone dissenting voice, while the fellow members of the Bench supported the government’s policy of arbitrary arrests during the Emergency years, is written in the Supreme Court annals as a historic episode of judicial courage and independence.

Justice Khanna was superseded as Chief Justice of India by the Indira Gandhi government, due to which he resigned.

“His (Justice Khanna) minority view at the time is now the majority view,” Justice Goel said.

“An innocent should not be punished. There should not be terror in society… We do not want any member of the SC/ST to be deprived of his rights. We only want an innocent not to be punished,” Justice Goel had told the government.

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