The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued notice to the Centre and 11 states on a public interest litigation (PIL) alleging caste-based discrimination and violence against prisoners belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in jails across the country.
PIL filed by former SC judge and others
The PIL was filed by former Supreme Court judge Justice K.S. Panicker Radhakrishnan, former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, and activists Harsh Mander and Maja Daruwala. The petitioners claimed that prisoners from SC and ST communities face systemic and institutionalised discrimination and violence in prisons, which violates their fundamental rights and dignity.
The petitioners cited various reports and studies by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and civil society organisations to highlight the plight of SC and ST prisoners in jails. They pointed out that SC and ST prisoners constitute about 34% of the total prison population, while their share in the general population is only 25%. They also alleged that SC and ST prisoners are often subjected to harsher treatment, torture, abuse, and denial of basic amenities and legal aid by prison authorities and other inmates.
Solicitor General denies caste discrimination in jails
The bench comprising Chief Justice N.V. Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and A.S. Bopanna sought the response of the Centre and 11 states, namely Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh, within four weeks.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, denied the allegations of caste discrimination in jails and said that the segregation of prisoners is based on the nature of offences and not on caste. “I have not heard of discrimination on caste. The segregation is usually based on undertrial prisoners and the convicts,” he said.
Petitioners seek directions from SC
The petitioners sought directions from the Supreme Court to the Centre and the states to take effective measures to prevent and redress caste-based discrimination and violence in prisons. They also sought the implementation of the recommendations made by various committees and commissions on prison reforms, such as the Mulla Committee, the Justice Krishna Iyer Committee, and the Justice Amitava Roy Committee.
The petitioners also urged the Supreme Court to direct the Centre and the states to collect and publish disaggregated data on the caste, religion, and gender of prisoners, as well as the nature and duration of their offences, to ensure transparency and accountability in the prison system.
The petitioners said that the PIL was filed in the interest of justice and human rights, and to uphold the constitutional values of equality, dignity, and fraternity for all citizens, especially the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of the society.