A three-judge Bench of CJI NV Ramana, Justice Surya Kant, and Justice Hima Kohli has quashed criminal proceedings in a case involving offences under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 by exercising its power under Article 142 of the Constitution and has cited six reasons for doing so.
The Court opined that if 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 the Court or the High Court to exercise its power under Article 142 or Section 482 CrPC.
An appeal was preferred against the judgment of the Madhya Pradesh High Court at Jabalpur Bench which had convicted and sentenced the Appellant-Accused under Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST Act along with six months rigorous imprisonment and fine of Rs. 1000.
The Supreme Court admitted the Appeal while noting that a compromise had been entered into between the parties and the Complainant had filed an application for compromise.
In this case, the Appellant was accused of making filthy and slur remarks on the caste of the Complainant and also of throwing a brick on her since she belonged to a Scheduled Caste community. There existed a civil dispute between the Appellant and the Complainant, who were also neighbors, over the ownership and possessory rights of a piece of land. This incident was followed by an FIR being registered against the Appellant under Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST Act read with Section 34 of IPC.
The Appellant contended before the Court that the parties were residents of the same village and there was no existing enmity between the two. Further, it was argued that the parties wanted to settle their dispute so that they continue to have cordial relations with each other.
While the Respondent-State opposed such a compromise as the offence in question was non-compoundable in terms of Section 320 CrPC.
The two main issues which were dealt with by the Court were –
i) 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'?
ii) 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?
Concerning the first issue, the Apex Court referred to the case of Ramgopal & Anr v. The State of Madhya Pradesh and observed, "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".
Further, the Court put in a caveat that the powers under Article 142 or under Section 482 CrPC are exercisable in post-conviction matters only when an appeal was 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 subjudice before an appellate court."
"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," the Bench opined.
For the second issue, the Court held the powers of the Court under Article 142 are wide and far-reaching; the same cannot be exercised in a vacuum.
"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 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 uppercastes," the Court observed.
The Court held that where the offence, although covered under the SC/ST Act, is primarily private of civil nature or has not been committed on account of the caste of the victim or where the continuation of legal proceedings would be an abuse of the process of law, the Court can exercise its powers to quash the proceedings.
The Bench in the light of aforesaid principles invoked the powers under Article 142 and quashed the criminal proceedings with the sole objective of doing complete justice between the parties while making the following observations –
1) Purpose of Section 3(1)(x) of SC/ST Act
The Court noted that the purpose of the Act is to discourage caste-based insults and intimidations used with an intention to demean those belonging to SC/ST community. Further, it was asserted that offence in the case was overarchingly private in nature and had only subtle undertones of criminality even when it came under the ambit of the special statute.
2) Offence does not exhibit mental depravity of Appellant
The Court opined that the offence in question for which the Appellant was convicted does not portray his mental depravity. It was noted by the Court that even the Appellant belonged to a backward section of the society and both the parties were also neighbors therefore, the proceedings could be quashed.
3) The incident occurred in 1994
The Court observed that the incident occurred way back in 1994 and there was nothing on record to show that the Appellant was a repeat offender.
4) Compromise upon Complainant's own free will
The compromise was entered into between the parties upon the Complainant's own free will and without any compulsion.
5) Nature of offence
Given the nature of the offence, it was immaterial that the trial against the Appellant was concluded.
6) To advance peace and harmony
Since both the parties were neighbors, the Court held that in order to avoid a revival of healed wounds and to advance peace and harmony, it was necessary to effectuate the settlement.
Accordingly, the Court allowed the appeal.