Above: Upper caste outfits protesting against favourable changes in the SC/ST Act/Photo: UNI
In a welcome step, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has directed governments in the two states and Chandigarh to refrain from mentioning the caste in police and judicial proceedings
By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh
Despite several reformist movements and calls for eradication of the caste system, the country has not been able to do away with it. Far from getting rid of this pernicious system, it is actually being perpetuated and backed by governments and political parties even after over 70 years of independence. Even officialdom has not been able to get rid of old habits.
One such, an 85-year-old law, which is followed till date, relates to the mentioning of the caste of the accused, victims and witnesses in FIRs and official court documents. The Punjab Police Rules, 1934, also followed by Haryana and the Union Territory of Chandigarh, provides for a column to mention caste.
Despite several undertakings in the past stating that governments would delete the column and not mention caste in FIRs, the practice continues.
Now the Punjab and Haryana High Court, in a highly appreciable step, has directed Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh to refrain from mentioning the caste in police and judicial proceedings. A division bench, comprising Justices Rajiv Sharma and Kuldip Singh, said in a recent judgment that “mentioning of caste/status separately in criminal proceedings is a colonial legacy and requires to be stopped forthwith”.
The issue was first brought to the notice of the Court in 2017 when a lawyer, HC Arora, filed a petition in public interest seeking directions to all investigating officers against mentioning caste or religion of the accused, victim or witnesses in recovery memos, FIRs, seizure memos, inquest papers and other forms prescribed under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, as well as the Punjab Police Rules, 1934.
However, despite assurances given by the representatives of governments, there is nothing to show that the Court directive has been followed till date.
The latest directive came while the division bench was hearing a murder case in which the Haryana Police had mentioned the caste of the accused, victims and eyewitnesses. Stating that such a practice was impermissible, the Court said that the right of dignity was a fundamental and basic human right.
“The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution were of utmost belief that the caste system would come to an end with the passage of time. However, unfortunately, the caste system is still prevalent. There is no scientific, intellectual, social or logical basis for the caste system. The caste system is profoundly illogical and is also against the basic tenets of the Constitution,” the bench observed.
Stating that human dignity is the foundation of constitutional rights and values, the Court observed it was, rather, one of the basic features of the Constitution, which also guaranteed a casteless and classless society.
It asserted that the “right to life” included right to live with human dignity. It was the State’s bounden duty not only to protect human dignity, but also facilitate it by taking positive steps in that direction. The Bench added that it “would be pertinent to mention here that during the course of investigation, the police have used the caste of the accused, witnesses as well as of the victim. This is not permissible. Mentioning of the caste status separately in the criminal proceedings is a colonial legacy and requires to be stopped forthwith….The Constitution guarantees a casteless and classless society. All are born equal”.
The Bench observed that there was no scientific, intellectual, social or logical basis for the caste system and that it is profoundly illogical and against the basic tenets of the Constitution. “We should, as a public policy, shun the caste system,” the Bench added.
It then directed the home secretaries of the two states and Chandigarh to issue instructions to all investigating officers against mentioning the caste of the accused, victims or witnesses in the recovery memos, FIRs, seizure memos, inquest papers and other forms prescribed under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, and the Punjab Police Rules.
The High Court Registrar-General was also directed to issue instructions to all judicial officers to follow the directions while dealing with cases.
Advocate Kanika Ahuja, who represented the appellants, said it was a case of honour killing and pointed out that the Court had given directives in the case and had not just made observations on the issue of mentioning the caste of the accused, the victims and the witnesses.
Political parties continue to hedge their bets on caste and creed of voters. A recent instance is the decision of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party to join hands with their so-called vote banks among Yadavs and Dalits. These two parties think that theirs is an unbeatable combination on the basis of the votes polled in the 2014 general election.
While the scourge of the caste system exists in varied forms across the country, the worst affected is the cow belt of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and parts of Haryana.
One has to just visit these states to see the extent of discrimination. The so- called lower caste people are treated like dirt. They have to live in dirty conditions and undertake the most menial jobs which can be termed as inhuman.
More significantly, they can’t eat from the same utensils as the “upper castes” and have to bow every time someone from the “upper caste” passes by. Several schools don’t allow children from the underprivileged sections of society.
Even Punjab, where the Sikh religion clearly talks of a no-caste system or discrimination, the teachings of the gurus are not followed. Most villages have separate gurdwaras and even cremation grounds for the so-called lower castes.
Unfortunately, most of these states still continue with the same British-era laws which perpetuate caste system and judge people on the basis of caste. The attitude is prevalent in various wings and departments of the government.
Therefore it is no wonder that the police forces also get influenced and investigations are undertaken keeping in mind the caste equations. Some of these states can even be accused of abetting such a practice of singling out persons on caste basis.
It is hoped that the governments reframe the rules and pass on strict instructions to comply with the directives. There is certainly a viewpoint that it is high time the caste system was also abolished in matters of reservations in institutions and jobs. Instead, the quota system should only cater to the economically deprived sections of society without discrimination of caste, religion or gender.
There is definitely weight in this argument and it needs a larger debate. However, such a step would need political will and vision, both woefully lacking in today’s polity.