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Offences Under Special Statutes Including SC/ST Act Can Also Be Quashed By Exercising Powers U/S 482 CrPC/Article 142: SC

 

In a quite significant development, we saw how none other than the Supreme Court has as recently as on October 25, 2021 in a learned, laudable, landmark and latest judgment titled Ram Awatar vs State of Madhya Pradesh in Criminal Appeal No. 1393 of 2011 has observed without mincing any words that criminal proceedings arising out of Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 can be quashed invoking powers under Article 142 of Constitution or Section 482 of Criminal Procedure Code. A three Judges Bench of Apex Court headed by CJI NV Ramana observed forthrightly that, “The mere fact that the offence is covered under a ‘special statute’ would not refrain this Court or the High Court, from exercising their respective powers under Article 142 of the Constitution or Section 482 CrPC.” The Bench also comprising of Justice Surya Kant and Justice Hima Kohli clarified that if there is even a hint of compulsion or force, no relief can be given to the accused party.

To start with, this brief, brilliant, bold and balanced judgment authored by Justice Surya Kant for himself and Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and Justice Hima Kohli of the Apex Court sets the ball rolling by first and foremost putting forth in para 1 that, “A civil dispute over the ownership and possessory rights of a piece of land between the Appellant and his neighbour Prembai took an ugly turn when the Appellant allegedly not only threw a brick on the Complainant but also made filthy and slur remarks on her caste, which prompted the Complainant to lodge FIR No. 18/94 at Police Station O.E. Panna under Section 3(1)(x) of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 (in short ‘SC/ST Act’) read with Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (in short ‘I.P.C.’). The Appellant and his co-accused were subsequently tried, which led to the Appellant’s conviction under Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST Act and consequential sentence of six months rigorous imprisonment and fine of Rs. 1000/-. The Appellant challenged his conviction and sentence before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh, Jabalpur Bench but his appeal was dismissed vide the impugned judgment dated 02.08.2010.”

While elaborating on the brief facts of this notable case, the Bench then enunciates in para 2 that, “Ramawatar (Appellant) and Prembai (Complainant), who are neighbours and live in adjoining houses, were entangled in a property dispute with respect to a portion of land over which Prembai’s house was built. On 25.06.1994, Ramawatar and his brother Katulal @ Kuddu (Co-accused) broke down a wall to make a door that opened into the house of Prembai. When this was resisted by her, a quarrel ensued between the parties and the Appellant threw a brick at the Complainant. Thereafter, this incident was reported and a complaint was lodged at Police Station, Devendra Nagar on the same date itself, and an M.L.C was also performed. Since the nature of the injury was simple, and the offence was found non-cognizable, the Police took no further steps. On the following day, i.e., 26.06.1994, when the Complainant was sitting in front of her residence, the Appellant and his brother appeared at the scene. They were visibly enraged by the fact that Prembai had lodged an F.I.R. against them. They started abusing her with repeated reference to her caste whilst also threatening her of dire consequences. After that, the Complainant and her husband Chotelal reported this incident before the Harijan Welfare Police Station, and the subject-F.I.R. under the SC/ST Act was lodged against the Accused.”

As we see, the Bench then stated in para 3 that, “The investigation commenced in light of the afore-stated facts. Upon collection of substantial evidence, Appellant and co-accused were committed to trial under Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST Act read with Section 34 of the I.P.C.”

To put things in perspective, the Bench then lays bare in para 4 that, “The Trial Court noted that the Complainant belonged to the ‘Prajapati’ community which is a Scheduled Caste. It was also observed that the parties had candidly admitted to a pending property dispute between them. The Trial Court further discerned that the prosecution witnesses had, by and large, supported the version of the Complainant and had indubitably substantiated that Ramawatar and Kuddu used deprecatory language upon the Complainant. It was found that the Appellant had made specific reference to the Complainant’s caste escorted by the intent to insult her. The actions of the Appellant & co-accused Kuddu were thus held to be in contravention of Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST Act read with Section 34 I.P.C. The Trial Court, therefore, convicted both the accused persons for the said offences and sentenced each of them to undergo rigorous imprisonment for 6 months.”

As it turned out, the Bench then brings out in para 5 that, “Discontented with their conviction, the accused preferred an appeal before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh, Jabalpur Bench. However, during the pendency of the proceedings, co-accused Kuddu passed away, and the appeal only survived qua the present Appellant. His primary contention before the High Court was that the abuses, if any, were not meant to demean the Complainant on account of her being a member of the Scheduled Caste community. Instead, the incident occurred on account of a property dispute between the parties. It was thus submitted that the alleged incident could not attract the provisions of the SC/ST Act. However, after reappraising the evidence on record, the High Court disagreed with the Appellant’s contention and held that there was sufficient material to establish that the Complainant being a member of the Scheduled Caste community was humiliated by the Appellant. Thus, concurring with the findings of the Trial Court, the High Court maintained the order of conviction and sentence passed against the Appellant.”

As a fallout, the Bench then reveals in para 6 that, “Aggrieved, the Appellant has approached this Court.”

Simply put, the Bench then stipulates in para 9 that, “Having heard learned Counsel for the parties at some length, we are of the opinion that two questions fall for our consideration in the present appeal. First, whether the jurisdiction of this Court under Article 142 of the Constitution can be invoked for quashing of criminal proceedings arising out of a non-compoundable offence? If yes, then whether the power to quash proceedings can be extended to offences arising out of special statutes such as the SC/ST Act?”

Quite rightly, the Bench then elucidates in para 10 stating that, “So far as the first question is concerned, it would be ad rem to outrightly refer to the recent decision of this Court in the case of Ramgopal & Anr v. The State of Madhya Pradesh (Criminal Appeal No. 1489 of 2012), wherein, a two-Judge Bench of this Court consisting of two of us (N.V. Ramana, CJI & Surya Kant, J) was confronted with an identical question. Answering in the affirmative, it has been clarified that the jurisdiction of a Court under Section 320 Cr.P.C cannot be construed as a proscription against the invocation of inherent powers vested in this Court under Article 142 of the Constitution nor on the powers of the High Courts under Section 482 Cr.P.C. It was further held that the touchstone for exercising the extraordinary powers under Article 142 or Section 482 Cr.P.C., would be to do complete justice. Therefore, this Court or the High Court, as the case may be, after having given due regard to the nature of the offence and the fact that the victim/complainant has willingly entered into a settlement/compromise, can quash proceedings in exercise of their respective constitutional/inherent powers.”

Furthermore, the Bench then discloses in para 11 that, “The Court in Ramgopal (Supra) further postulated that criminal proceedings involving non-heinous offences or offences which are predominantly of a private nature, could be set aside at any stage of the proceedings, including at the appellate level. The Court, however, being conscious of the fact that unscrupulous offenders may attempt to escape their criminal liabilities by securing a compromise through brute force, threats, bribes, or other such unethical and illegal means, cautioned that in cases where a settlement is struck post-conviction, the Courts should, interalia, carefully examine the fashion in which the compromise has been arrived at, as well as, the conduct of the accused before and after the incident in question. While conducting, the Court also formulated certain guidelines and held:

“19… Nonetheless, we reiterate that such powers of wide amplitude ought to be exercised carefully in the context of quashing criminal proceedings, bearing in mind: (i) Nature and effect of the offence on the conscious of the society; (ii) Seriousness of the injury, if any; (iii) Voluntary nature of compromise between the accused and the victim; & (iv) Conduct of the accused persons, prior to and after the occurrence of the purported offence and/or other relevant considerations.” [Emphasis Applied].”

As a corollary, the Bench then propounds in para 12 that, “In view of the settled proposition of law, we affirm the decision of this Court in Ramgopal (Supra) and reiterate that the powers of this Court under Article 142 can be invoked to quash a criminal proceeding on the basis of a voluntary compromise between the complainant/victim and the accused.”

While adding a rider, the Bench then stipulates in para 13 that, “We, however, put a further caveat that the powers under Article 142 or under Section 482 Cr.P.C., are exercisable in post-conviction matters only where an appeal is pending before one or the other Judicial forum. This is on the premise that an order of conviction does not attain finality till the accused has exhausted his/her legal remedies and the finality is sub-judice before an appellate court. The pendency of legal proceedings, be that may before the final court, is sine qua non to involve the superior court’s plenary powers to do complete justice. Conversely, where a settlement has ensued post the attainment of all legal remedies, the annulment of proceedings on the basis of a compromise would be impermissible. Such an embargo is necessitated to prevent the accused from gaining an indefinite leverage, for such a settlement/compromise will always be loaded with lurking suspicion about its bona fide. We have already clarified that the purpose of these extraordinary powers is not to incentivize any hollow-hearted agreements between the accused and the victim but to do complete justice by effecting genuine settlement(s).”

Briefly stated, the Bench then pointed out in para 14 that, “With respect to the second question before us, it must be noted that even though the powers of this Court under Article 142 are wide and far-reaching, the same cannot be exercised in a vacuum. True it is that ordinary statutes or any restrictions contained therein, cannot be constructed as a limitation on the Court’s power to do “complete justice”. However, this is not to say that this Court can altogether ignore the statutory provisions or other express prohibitions in law. In fact, the Court is obligated to take note of the relevant laws and will have to regulate the use of its power and discretion accordingly.” The case that was cited in this para was that of Supreme Court Bar Assn. v. Union of India & Anr. (1998) 4 SCC 409.

For the sake of clarity, the Bench then also hastens to add in para 18 stating that, “We may hasten to add that in cases such as the present, 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. It cannot be understated that since 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. If the Courts find even a hint of compulsion or force, no relief can be given to the accused party. What factors the Courts should consider, would depend on the facts and circumstances of each case.”

Most significantly, what forms the cornerstone of this commendable, cogent, composed and convincing judgment is then aptly stated in para 19 that, “Having considered the peculiar facts and circumstances of the present case in light of the afore-stated principles, as well as having meditated on the application for compromise, we are inclined to invoke the powers under Article 142 and quash the instant Criminal proceedings with the sole objective of doing complete justice between the parties before us. We say so for the reasons that:

Firstly, the very purpose behind Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST is to deter caste based insults and intimidations when they are used with the intention of demeaning a victim on account of he/she belonging to the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe community. In the present case, the record manifests that there was an undeniable pre-existing civil dispute between the parties. The case of the Appellant, from the very beginning, has been that the alleged abuses were uttered solely on account of frustration and anger over the pending dispute. Thus, the genesis of the deprecated incident was the afore-stated 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, even though the provisions of a special statute have been attracted in the present case.

Secondly, the offence in question, for which the Appellant has been convicted, does not appear to exhibit his mental depravity. The aim of the SC/ST Act is to protect members of the downtrodden classes from atrocious acts of the upper strata of the society. 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. Despite the rampant prevalence of segregation in Indian villages whereby members of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe community are forced to restrict their quarters only to certain areas, it is seen that in the present case, the Appellant and the Complainant lived in adjoining houses. Therefore, keeping in mind the socio-economic status of the appellant, we are of the opinion that the overriding objective of the SC/ST Act would not be overwhelmed if the present proceedings are quashed.

Thirdly, the incident occurred way back in the year 1994. Nothing on record indicates that either before or after the purported compromise, any untoward incident had transpired between the parties. The State Counsel has also not brought to our attention any other occurrence that would lead us to believe that the Appellant is either a repeat offender or is unremorseful about what transpired.

Fourthly, the Complainant has, on her own free will, without any compulsion, entered into a compromise and wishes to drop the present criminal proceedings against the accused.

Fifthly, given the nature of the offence, it is immaterial that the trial against the Appellant had been concluded.

Sixthly, the Appellant and the Complainant parties are residents of the same village and live in very 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.”

Finally, the Bench then holds in para 20 that, “Consequently, and for the aforementioned reasons, we find it appropriate to invoke our powers under Article 142 of the Constitution and quash the criminal proceedings do complete justice between the parties. As a sequel thereto, judgments and orders passed by the Trial Court and the High Court are set aside. Bail bonds, if any, are discharged. The appeal is allowed in above terms.”

To sum it up, it is thus manifestly clear in this notable judgment that offences under special statutes including SC/ST Act can also be quashed by exercising powers under Article 142 of the Constitution or Section 482 of the CrPC. We have dealt in considerable detail in para 19 of this notable judgment as to when the offences can be quashed. The same needs to be implemented in totality.

Sanjeev Sirohi

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