Guidelines against destruction during protests
The Supreme Court expressed it displeasure over rioting and destruction of public property happening in the country recently. Despite of having a law, such incidents are common during protests.
The Prevention of Damage to Public property act, 1984 punishes anyone who commits mischief by doing anything with respect to any public property, with a jail term up to five years and a fine or both. The definition of public property includes any building, installation, supply of water and light, any means of public transportation or telecommunications or property used in connection therewith.
However, due to the presence of several gaps in the law, the SC setup two committees headed by former apex court judge KT Thomas and Senior advocate Fali Nariman.
The Thomas committee recommended reversing the burden of proof against protestors which was accepted by the court. The court said that prosecution required to prove that public property had been damaged due to direct action by an organisation and the accused participated in such an action. From that stage the burden can be shifted to the accused to prove his innocence. It also added that the law needs to be amended to provide court the power to presume that accused is guilty of destroying public property which then the accuse must rebut. Such a several is applicable in cases of sexual violence as well, where generally the law presume accused is innocent until proven.
The Norman Committee recommended that rioters would be made liable for the damages done and compensation be collected to make good the damage. Apart from holding rioters liable, the court also issued guidelines to High Courts to setup a machinery to investigate damages caused and award compensation for loss to property during protests.
Impact of guidelines
The guidelines have a limited impact as the process of identification of protestors remains difficult, especially in case of a lack of a leader.
The 2015 Patidar agitation saw Hardik Patel charged with sedition for inciting violence leading to loss of life and property. However, due to lack of evidence he could not be held for loss of property.
In 2017 case of Koshy Jacob vs Union of India, the court reiterated that the law needs updation, but it could not provide petitioned the loss occurred due to protests.