THE SUPREME Court on Monday ruled that its inherent powers under Article 142 of the Constitution or that of the High Court under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure can be invoked to quash proceedings under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989.
“Where it appears to the court that the offence in question, although covered under the SC/ST Act, is primarily private or civil in nature, or where the alleged offence has not been committed on account of the caste of the victim, or where the continuation of the legal proceedings would be an abuse of the process of law, the court can exercise its powers to quash the proceedings,” said a Bench of Chief Justice of India N V Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli.
It said that in case of a prayer for quashing, on the ground that the parties have settled their differences, “if the court is satisfied that the underlying objective of the Act would not be contravened or diminished even if the felony in question goes unpunished, the mere fact that the offence is covered under a ‘special statute’ would not refrain” it or the HC “from exercising their respective powers under Article 142 of the Constitution or Section 482 CrPC.”
The Bench said this while quashing a case against a resident of Madhya Pradesh, who was convicted for using casteist slurs against his neighbour — a Scheduled Caste woman — with whom he had a property dispute. While a trial court had convicted the man, the Madhya Pradesh High Court had upheld the order.
“Ordinarily, when dealing with offences arising out of special statutes such as the SC/ST Act, the court will be extremely circumspect in its approach. The SC/ST Act has been specifically enacted to deter acts of indignity, humiliation and harassment against members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The Act is also a recognition of the depressing reality that despite undertaking several measures, the Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes continue to be subjected to various atrocities at the hands of upper-castes. The courts have to be mindful of the fact that the Act has been enacted keeping in view the express constitutional safeguards enumerated in Articles 15, 17 and 21 of the Constitution, with a twin-fold objective of protecting the members of these vulnerable communities as well as to provide relief and rehabilitation to the victims of caste-based atrocities,” said Justice Surya Kant, writing for the Bench.
He said the “courts ought to be even more vigilant to ensure that the complainant victim has entered into the compromise on the volition of his/ her free will and not on account of any duress” as SC, ST members belong to weaker sections that are more prone to acts of coercion “and therefore ought to be accorded a higher level of protection”.
In the present case, however, the Bench noted that the matter had been settled between the parties, and the complainant had filed an application for compromise. The court said the genesis of the incident was the civil/ property dispute. “Considering this aspect, we are of the opinion that it would not be incorrect to categorise the occurrence as one being overarchingly private in nature, having only subtle undertones of criminality…”
It noted that although the appellant may not belong to the same caste as the complainant, he too was from the relatively weaker/backward section, and certainly not in any better economic or social position.
The Bench said the appellant and the complainant are residents of the same village and live in close proximity to each other. “We have no reason to doubt that the parties themselves have voluntarily settled their differences. Therefore, in order to avoid the revival of healed wounds, and to advance peace and harmony, it will be prudent to effectuate the present settlement”.