Subodh Ghildiyal, TNN | Jul 28, 2015, 05.13 AM IST

NEW DELHI: “Touching a Dalit or tribal woman in a sexual manner without consent” or “acts/gestures of sexual nature” against them would invite the stringent provisions of the Prevention of SC/ST Atrocities Act (POA).

The Centre has decided to amend the POA along the lines of UPA’s ordinance, with the objective of strengthening the special law by including more crimes under the head of “atrocities”.

In an important addition, the bill provides for presuming caste motive behind a crime and puts the onus on the accused to prove otherwise.

As the legislation is set to be taken in Lok Sabha, minister for social justice Thaawar Chand Gehlot told TOI, “There is no change in the bill that was tabled in Lok Sabha (in July 2014). There is no dilution.”

The proposed amendments have been a source of political wrangling ever since the newly-elected BJP government tabled the bill to turn UPA’s ordinance into law, but allowed it to lapse. Congress then accused BJP of trying to dilute the changes.

Congress chief Sonia Gandhi recently wrote to PM Narendra Modi demanding the immediate passage of the bill.

While sexual assault is part of the existing law, the bill makes it stringent by including “intentional touching without consent” and “using words or gestures” under assault of women. It also includes actions under the outlawed Devadasi system.

According to experts, the additions under atrocities, by laying out new acts in specific terms, would curb the scope of misinterpretation by police or the accused.

“These actions are criminal in nature but the atrocities law provides for stronger provisions: there is more protection for victims and witnesses, and there is a bar on anticipatory bail,” Dalit activist S Prasad said.

The POA states that any non-SC/ST public servant who neglects his duties on crime against Dalits would be punishable with a jail term of six months to one year. Now, the changes specify the official’s duties as registering an FIR, reading out information given orally before taking the signature of the informant and providing a copy of the said complaint.

In place of POA provision that a sessions court be deemed a special court to try offences, the bill states that exclusive courts be established in districts to dispose of cases within two months while appeals in high courts should be disposed of in three months.