SC/ST Act Offence Not Established Merely Because Informant Is A Member of Scheduled Caste: Punjab And Haryana HC
While not leaving even an iota of doubt to linger in the mind of any person, we see that how the Punjab and Haryana High Court in a most learned, laudable, landmark and latest judgment titled Bhawna Gupta Vs State of Punjab and Another in CRM-M-47819-2023 (O&M) that was reserved on 6-12-2023 and then finally pronounced on 4-1-2024 has quashed an FIR against a young female journalist named Bhawana Gupta who is working with the eminent news channel “Times Now” on the premise that the offence under Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1999 (SC/ST Act) is not established merely because the informant is a member of Scheduled Caste, unless there is an intention to humiliate. To put it differently, if there is no intention to humiliate anyone then how can it be an offence? It must be certainly mentioned here that the Chandigarh High Court was dealing with a petition that had been filed by the journalist under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) seeking quashing of an FIR registered against her.
What we must acknowledge is that it remains undisputed that the accused/petitioner had no personal knowledge of the victim’s or her family’s caste and as such, the Court cannot presume that she was aware of the victim’s caste or tribal identity. The Court also pointed out that the primary burden was on the complainant to establish this knowledge, which they did not state and neither the State nor the complainant mentioned that she was aware of the victim’s caste and hence, their conspicuous silence speaks more than the words. The Chandigarh High Curt thus concluded that it is a fit case where the continuation of criminal proceedings shall amount to an abuse of the process of law and hence, invoked its inherent jurisdiction under Section 482 CrPC. Quite naturally, we thus see that as a consequence the Chandigarh High Court very rightly allowed the petition and quashed the FIR against the journalist.
At the very outset, this brief, brilliant, bold and balanced judgment authored by the Single Judge Bench comprising of Hon’ble Mr Justice Anoop Chitkara of Punjab and Haryana High Court at Chandigarh sets the ball in motion by first and foremost pointing out that, “FIR No. 41 dated 5.5.2023 Police Station Division No.3, District Police Commissionerate, Ludhiana under Sections 279, 337, 427 IPC and Section 3(x) and 4 of the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities), Act, 1989, Sections 3(x) and 4 deleted and Section 3(s) of the SC/ST Act added later on.”
To put things in perspective, the Bench envisages in para 1 that, “A young female journalist, working for Times Now Navbharat Unit of Times Network as their Sr. Correspondent, has come up before this Court under Section 482 CrPC, seeking quashing of the above captioned FIR, by primarily asserting that (without admitting) even if the allegations are taken as a gospel truth, she had no intention or mensrea to abuse the complainant knowing that she belonged to the Scheduled caste community with the words attributed to her, because she was visiting the said location for covering a political event, had never met the complainant in her life, and was unaware of her caste, as such there was no question of violating Section 3(s) of the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities), Act, 1989, and other offenses are not attributed to her.”
As we see, the Bench then unravels in para 2 stating that, “The prosecution’s case is based on the statement made by one Smt. Gagan, which led to the registration of the FIR captioned above. The copy of FIR translated in English is annexed as Annexure P-1, and none of the parties disputes its translation. The contents of the FIR read as follows: –
Statement of Gxxxx wife of RxxxKxxx resident of Balmiki Colony Ludhiana aged 50 years. Stated that I am resident of the said address and am a housewife. Today, on 05.05.2023 I alongwith Neelam Rani Resident of 991, Near Balmiki Mandir Chowk Division No. 3 and Sharda Resident of Ghaati Mohalla, Ludhiana were going to the inauguration of the new Mohalla Clinic by Chief Minister Bhagwant Maan at Mohalla Harcharan Nagar and were getting down from the e-Riksha near Shingaar Cinema crossing, and immediately upon getting down, a car driver while driving carelessly hit me from one side and while I was trying to defend myself; my right hand was injured due to the impact of the vehicle and due to the impact of the vehicle my mobile phone brand Samsung Galaxy fell down from my hand and was broken. On reading the number of the vehicle I found it to be UP-16-CD-6327 of Innova make Color White. The driver of the vehicle started arguing with me and when I asked the driver of the vehicle that why did you hit the vehicle into me and because of being hit by your vehicle, I have been injured and the phone of a poor has been broken. On this, alongwith the car driver, another man and a woman also came there and they alongwith the car driver started abusing me and the woman started saying “Tum NeechJaatiwaleychamaar logon ka yahikaamhai, tum log gaadiwalon se paisa aithnekeliyekisibhi had takgirsakte ho” and after saying this when I objected to it a lot of people gathered there and after a while your police party reached the spot. I came to know the name of the driver of the car as Parminder Singh Rawat, the name of the other person who argued as Mritunjay Kumar and the women who uttered caste indicative words as Bhawna. That the driver of the said car while driving recklessly rammed the car into me and caused me injury and caused damage to my mobile and the car passenger Bhawna insulted me by publically using caste indicative words against my caste and I may be provided justice by taking suitable action against them as per law. I have got recorded my statement with you in presence of my known Neelam Rani & Sharda, gone through, it is correct. Sd/- Gxxxx”.”
As it turned out, the Bench enunciates in para 3 that, “The State has filed its reply dated 29-09-2023 through the affidavit of the concerned Assistant Commissioner of Police, Emergency Response-cum-Nodal Officer the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities), Act, 1989 [SCSTPOA]. The petitioner has filed her rejoinder to the reply. The complainant has also filed her reply dated 16-10-2023. Opposing the quashing, the State contends that the investigation is continuing, and if this Court quashes the FIR, it will be throttling the investigation.”
Be it noted, the Bench notes in para 10 that, “To analyze these submissions, it would be appropriate to refer to the FIR, per which when the complainant/respondent No.2, along with her neighbors, had gone to attend the inauguration of the new mohalla clinic and when they were descending from an e-rickshaw, a car, [Innova] hit her which was being driven carelessly. In the process of saving her life, her right hand got injured, and even her mobile phone fell from her hand and broke. After that, the vehicle’s driver started arguing with her. When she questioned him about why he hit her with his vehicle, because of which she was injured and her phone was broken, the vehicle’s driver and another man and woman, who were in the vehicle, came down and started abusing her. As per the informant, the woman [petitioner] who was sitting in the car attributed words “Tum neechjaatiwaleychamaar logon ka yahikaamhai, tum log gaadiwalon se paise ainthnekeliyekisi vi had takgirsakte ho”. On hearing these words, the complainant objected, and many people gathered there, and in between, the police party reached the spot. She later stated that the person who had also argued with her, sitting in the car, was named Mritunjay, and the other lady who had uttered casteist words was named Bhawna.”
Resultantly, the Bench observed in para 11 that, “Based on these allegations, the police registered FIR, i.e., for driving the vehicle in a rash and negligent manner endangering human life punishable under Section 279 IPC, due to a rash and negligent act causing hurt to a woman and endangered personal safety offense punishable under Section 337 IPC and wrongfully committed mischief by causing loss for more than Rs.50 punishable under Section 427 IPC. In addition to that, FIR was registered under Sections 3(x) and Section 4 of SCSTPOA, and later on Sections 3(x) and Section 4 were substituted by S.3(s) of SCSTPOA.”
Most forthrightly, the Bench holds in para 13 that, “It would be a travesty of justice to arrive at a finding of a prima facie case that the petitioner, who was not driving and was a passenger, had caused impact with the vehicle with the intention or knowledge that the driver will cause an accident, the phone that the victim might be carrying would fall, which in turn would cause a loss of more than Rs.50. Thus, by such an imagination, the ingredients of mischief could not have been invoked against the petitioner. Even if all allegations of causing damage to the phone are taken to be truthful, it will not constitute any offense against the petitioner, punishable under Sections 279, 337, 427 IPC; as such, the FIR for an offense under Sections 279, 337, 427 IPC are, as a result of this quashed and set aside.”
Do note, the Bench notes in para 23 that, “Whether there was intent to insult or humiliate by using the word ‘Chamar’ will of course depend on the context in which it was used. (Swaran Singh v. State through Standing Counsel, (2008) 8 SCC 435, Para 24). Offence under the Act is not established merely on the fact that the informant is a member of Scheduled Caste unless there is an intention to humiliate a member of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe for the reason that the victim belongs to such caste. (Hitesh Verma v. The State of Uttarakhand, (2020) 10 SCC 710, Para 18). There is no evidence to show that the offence was committed only on the ground that the victim was a member of the Scheduled Caste and therefore, the conviction of the appellant-accused under Section 3(2)(v) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is not sustainable. (Khuman Singh v. State of Madhya Pradesh, (2020) 18 SCC 763, Para 14.).”
It is worth noting that the Bench notes in para 24 that, “To establish a primafacie violation of Section 3(s) of the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities), Act, 1989, the FIR/complaint and the investigation must have disclosed and established all the following constituents:
(a). The accused must not belong to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe.
(b). The victim must belong to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe.
(c). The accused must have abused any member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe by caste name.
(d). Such abuse must be in any place within public view.
(e). The accused had personal knowledge of the victim or their family to enable the Court to presume that the accused was aware of the caste or tribal identity of the victim unless the contrary is proved by the accused.”
Most significantly, the Bench then holds in para 25 that, “It remains undisputed that the accused/petitioner had no personal knowledge of the victim’s or her family’s caste. As such, the Court cannot presume that the accused was aware of the victim’s caste or tribal identity. Given this, the primary burden was on the complainant to establish this knowledge, which they did not state. Neither the State nor the complainant mentioned that the petitioner was aware of the victim’s caste, and their conspicuous silence speaks more than the words.”
While citing the most relevant and recent case law, the Bench points out in para 27 that, “In Prathvi Raj Chauhan v. Union of India & Ors., (2020) 4 SCC 727, Supreme Court holds,
. The Court can, in exceptional cases, exercise power under Section 482 CrPC for quashing the cases to prevent misuse of provisions on settled parameters, as already observed while deciding the review petitions. The legal position is clear, and no argument to the contrary has been raised.”
While citing the most recent, relevant and remarkable case law, the Bench mentions in para 28 that, “In Salib alias Shalu alias Salim v. State of U.P. and Others, ; 2023 SCC OnLine SC 947, [2023 INSC 687], Supreme Court holds,
. At this stage, we would like to observe something important. Whenever an accused comes before the Court invoking either the inherent powers under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) or extraordinary jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution to get the FIR or the criminal proceedings quashed essentially on the ground that such proceedings are manifestly frivolous or vexatious or instituted with the ulterior motive for wreaking vengeance, then in such circumstances the Court owes a duty to look into the FIR with care and a little more closely. We say so because once the complainant decides to proceed against the accused with an ulterior motive for wreaking personal vengeance, etc., then he would ensure that the FIR/complaint is very well drafted with all the necessary pleadings. The complainant would ensure that the averments made in the FIR/complaint are such that they disclose the necessary ingredients to constitute the alleged offence. Therefore, it will not be just enough for the Court to look into the averments made in the FIR/complaint alone for the purpose of ascertaining whether the necessary ingredients to constitute the alleged offence are disclosed or not. In frivolous or vexatious proceedings, the Court owes a duty to look into many other attending circumstances emerging from the record of the case over and above the averments and, if need be, with due care and circumspection try to read in between the lines. The Court while exercising its jurisdiction under Section 482 of the CrPC or Article 226 of the Constitution need not restrict itself only to the stage of a case but is empowered to take into account the overall circumstances leading to the initiation/registration of the case as well as the materials collected in the course of investigation.”
Finally and as a corollary, the Bench then aptly concludes by holding in para 29 that, “Given above, in the peculiar facts and circumstances, it is a fit case where the continuation of criminal proceedings shall amount to an abuse of the process of law, and the Court invokes its inherent jurisdiction under section 482 CrPC and quashes the above captioned FIR and all subsequent proceedings qua the petitioner. Petition allowed. All pending applications, if any, stand closed.”
In sum, we thus see that the Punjab and Haryana High Court very rightly, robustly and rationally quashes the FIR that was lodged against the young female journalist named Bhawana Gupta. It was very rightly held that an offence under SC/ST Act is not established merely because informant is a member of Scheduled Caste unless there is an intention to humiliate. We thus find that there was no such intention and so all the criminal proceedings were very rightly quashed against the petitioner! No denying it!