Explained| Can proceeding under SC/ST Act be quashed on the basis of compromise between accused and victim?

Supreme Court: The bench of NV Ramana, CJ and Surya Kant* and Hima Kohli, JJ has held that the powers of the Supreme 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.

Putting a further caveat, the Court held 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.

The Court, however, clarified that the purpose of these extra-ordinary powers is not to incentivise any hollow-hearted agreements between the accused and the victim but to do complete justice by effecting genuine settlement(s).

“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.

The Court went on to clarify 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.”

Court’s power while dealing with offences under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989

Ordinarily, when dealing with offences arising out of special statutes such as the SC/ST Act, the Court will be extremely circumspect in its approach. 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 a 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 upper-castes.

“The Courts have to be mindful of the fact that the Act has been enacted keeping in view the express constitutional safeguards enumerated in Articles 15, 17 and 21 of the Constitution, with a twin-fold objective of protecting the members of these vulnerable communities as well as to provide relief and rehabilitation to the victims of caste-based atrocities.”

On the other hand, where it appears to the Court that the offence in question, although covered under the SC/ST Act, is

  • primarily private or civil in nature, or
  • where the alleged offence has not been committed on account of the caste of the victim, or
  • where the continuation of the legal proceedings would be an abuse of the process of law,

the Court can exercise its powers to quash the proceedings.

On similar lines, when considering a prayer for quashing on the basis of a compromise/settlement,

“…if the Court is satisfied that 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 this Court or the High Court, from exercising their respective powers under Article 142 of the Constitution or Section 482 Cr.P.C.”

Ruling on facts

The Court was deciding 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. The Appellant was convicted under the unamended Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST Act.

The Court held that in such cases, 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.”

Invoking the powers under Article 142 and quashing the Criminal proceedings with the sole objective of doing complete justice between the parties, the Court recorded the following reasons:

  1. 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. 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 civil/property dispute. Considering this aspect, 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.
  2. 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. 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 quartes only to certain areas, it is seen that in the present case, the Appellant and the Complainant lived in adjoining houses. Therefore, the overriding objective of the SC/ST Act would not be overwhelmed if the present proceedings are quashed.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. given the nature of the offence, it is immaterial that the trial against the Appellant had been concluded.
  6. the Appellant and the Complainant parties are residents of the same village and live in very close proximity to each other. The parties themselves have voluntarily settled their differences.

Therefore, in order to avoid the revival of healed wounds, and to advance peace and harmony, the Court found it prudent to effectuate the present settlement.

[Ramawatar v. State of Madhya Pradesh, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 966, decided on 25.10.2021]


*Judgment by: Justice Surya Kant

Know Thy Judge | Justice Surya Kant

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