A three-judge bench of the Bombay High Court on Friday held that the scope of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) cannot be restricted only to a person from the state or Union Territory in which he or she is declared as a member of SC or ST community.
The full bench held that such a person is also entitled to protection under the Act in any other part of the country, where the offence is committed, though he or she is not recognised as a person from SC or ST category in that state or Union Territory.
The HC said that “restricting identity of SC or ST category person only to state of his/her origin would defeat the fundamental right under Article 19 (1) (d) of constitution” which entitles every citizen to move freely throughout the territory of the country.
“Such restrictions would indirectly require them to be bound to their State of origin, with no chance of taking steps to progress themselves by stepping outside. This definitely would cause more harm to the identified class than advancing them to compete with members of the higher class and assisting them in achieving equality, as enshrined in the Constitution,” the court added.
Moreover, it also held that appeals under the Atrocities Act, irrespective of punishment the offence has attracted, shall lie before a single-judge bench of the High Court and not before a division bench comprising two judges.
A full bench of Justices Revati Mohite Dere, Bharati H Dangre and N J Jamadar passed its verdict after a single-judge bench of Justice Sarang V Kotwal, in November, last year, had referred the two issues for consideration before a full bench.
In one of the cases, a complainant woman belonging to ST in Uttarakhand filed an FIR in Maharashtra under IPC and Atrocities Act against her husband.
Advocate Abhinav Chandrachud for appellant husband submitted that when a member of SC/ST community migrates to another state, he/she cannot reap benefits and carry caste status as a baggage to attract offences under Atrocities Act in the latter state.
Advocate General Birendra Saraf for Maharashtra government and then Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh for Centre however argued that the law has been framed for combating special categories of crime and its scope cannot be restricted to territorial limitations.
Advocate Prakash Ambedkar also said that any interpretation of the said law which which would narrow down its scope should be avoided.
Justice Dangre for the bench noted that caste is an “enigma” and membership of social class, sometimes based on occupational grouping is “involuntary” and the caste “automatically sticks to person” since birth as “hereditary trait.”
“It is not possible for him/her to get rid of the baggage of his/her caste though he/she may come out of the occupational grouping or from the social status of that particular caste and becomes socially and economically forward surpassing his peers in the caste,” HC noted.
The bench added that such a person travelling to different regions “would find it difficult to shed off his/her caste based identity, as it is nearly impossible to break the rigours of the inflexible and exclusive character of the caste system.”
The HC observed that a person cannot be freed of the caste barriers either by marriage with a forward caste person or conversion.
It added, “The label attached to a person born into a SC or ST may continue, notwithstanding his/her personal upliftment, social upliftment by his/her own good deeds, but he/she does not lose identity and selfhood, as he/she has once upon a time suffered the sting and disadvantages, though he/she has travelled ahead in life.”
It added, “The tradition bound caste system intricately had within its embryo the institution of untouchability, which divided the Hindus, influenced their thought process and deeply imprinted in their mind…”
The HC said the prevailing caste system in India is a “peculiar and complex thing” and the “argument that caste shall be limited to the boundaries of a state would be a myth.”