Using “extraordinary powers” granted to the Supreme Court, it set aside proceedings against a man convicted under the scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The court took into account that the casteist slurs were rooted in frustration due to a property dispute and not the intention to demean the complainant on the basis of her caste but also stressed that members of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe “belong to the weaker sections of our country, they are more prone to acts of coercion and therefore ought to be accorded a higher level of protection”.
The incident happened in the year 1994 in the Panna district of Madhya Pradesh. Ramawatar and his neighbour Prembai got into a dispute over the ownership and possessory rights of a piece of land. It took an ugly turn when he allegedly not only threw a brick on her but also used casteist slurs and made filthy remarks. The woman belongs to the ‘Prajapati’ community which is listed as a Scheduled Caste in the state.
The top court used extraordinary powers under Article 142 of the Constitution to set aside proceedings against the man, taking note of a compromise between the parties and “in order to avoid the revival of healed wounds, and to advance peace and harmony”. The judgment was passed by a three-judge bench of CJI NV Ramana, Justice Surya Kant, and Justice Hima Kohli.
The woman had filed a case under the SC/ST Act and Ramawatar was eventually convicted, sentenced to six months of rigorous imprisonment, and fined Rs. 1,000. The accused then challenged his conviction and sentence before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh, Jabalpur Bench but his appeal was dismissed on August 2, 2010.
Mr Ramawatar then moved the Supreme Court and informed the Court that the matter had been settled between the parties, and the woman had filed an application for compromise. The accused told the Court that the parties are residents of the same village and there is no existing enmity between them. It was submitted that the parties wished to settle their dispute so that they may continue to have cordial relations.
The order also said that “no relief can be given to the accused party” if the Courts found “even a hint of compulsion or force”.
The bench took into account that both accused and victim belong to the same social and economic strata and noted that the accused was not a repeat offender as there has been no other dispute involving the accused post the incident 27 years ago.
“It appears to us that although the appellant may not belong to the same caste as the complainant, he too belongs to the relatively weaker/backward section of the society and is certainly not in any better economic or social position when compared to the victim,” the bench observed.
Keeping in mind the socio-economic status of the appellant, the bench was of the opinion that “the overriding objective of the SC/ST Act would not be overwhelmed if the present proceedings are quashed”.