SC reminds Police to be vigilant before invoking stringent laws like SC-ST Act; expresses concern over litigants criminalising civil disputes

sc st act

Supreme Court: In a case where a “frivolous” criminal case was filed under the Section 3(1)(15) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 after failing to get a favourable relief in a land dispute, the bench Dinesh Maheshwari and Ahsanuddin Amanullah, JJ the Court stressed on the importance of vigilance on the part of the officer instituting an FIR, based on any complaint and asked them to be satisfied that the provisions he seeks to invoke prima facie apply to the case at hand.

Sequence of Events

In the case at hand, the land was purchased by the original landowners in 1954-55, and occupancy rights were created in their favour on 09.07.1961. No dispute was raised by anyone before any authority until GMID entered into a Joint Development Agreement with the original landowners in 2009, obtained all clearances from the authorities, built more than 400 apartments, and sold them to buyers/allottees in 2017. The dispute only arose after the completion of the construction work and sale of the apartments. The complainant and her family members, who claim to be the owners of the land, sat by and watched on as fence-sitters for 60 years before raising any objection, showing their lack of bona fide. Moreover, when one civil litigation had ended with no relief granted to the relatives of the complainant, another civil suit was filed in 2016, but when no interim order could be secured, the criminal complaint was registered, resulting in the FIR under Section 3(1)(15) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (SC/ST Act) and Sections 427, 420, 419, 406, 471, 468, 448 and 120-B of the Penal Code, 1860.

Supreme Court’s analysis

Taking note of the sequence of events, the Court had no doubt that the entire case reeked of malafide on the part of the complainant. Noticing the huge and unexplained delay of over 60 years in initiating dispute with regard to the ownership of the land in question, and the criminal case being lodged only after failure to obtain relief in the civil suits, coupled with denial of relief in the interim therein to the respondent no.2/her family members, the Court observed that, it was evident that resort was now being had to criminal proceedings “with ulterior motives, for oblique reasons and is a clear case of vengeance.”

Not only this, but the Court also observed that even if the allegations are taken to be true on their face value, no offence was made out under the SC/ST Act against the appellant. “The complaint and FIR are frivolous, vexatious and oppressive.”

Making strong observations, the Court said,

“What is evincible from the extant case-law is that this Court has been consistent in interfering in such matters where purely civil disputes, more often than not, relating to land and/or money are given the colour of criminality, only for the purposes of exerting extra-judicial pressure on the party concerned, which, we reiterate, is nothing but abuse of the process of the court.”

The Court also remined the officers, who institute an FIR, based on any complaint, that they are duty- bound to be vigilant before invoking any provision of a very stringent statute, like the SC/ST Act, which imposes serious penal consequences on the concerned accused. The officer has to be satisfied that the provisions he seeks to invoke prima facie apply to the case at hand.

With abundant caution, the Court clarified that its remarks in the case at hand, in no manner, are to dilute the applicability of special/stringent statutes, but only to remind the police not to mechanically apply the law, dehors reference to the factual position.

Consequently, the Court held that the Karnataka High Court fell in error in not invoking its wholesome power under Section 482 of the Code to quash the FIR and hence, set aside the impugned judgment as well as the FIR against the appellant.

[Gulam Mustafa v. State of Karnataka, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 603, decided on 10.05.2023]

Judgment authored by Justice Ahsanuddin Amanullah

Know Thy Judge | Supreme Court of India: Justice Ahsanuddin Amanullah

Advocates who appeared in this case :

For Petitioner(s): Devadatt Kamat, Sr. Adv. , Nizam Pasha, Adv. , Lzafeer Ahmad B. F., AOR , Sidhharth Kaushik, Adv , Shivendra Pandey, Adv, Rajesh Inamdar, Adv.,Anubhav Kumar, Adv., Ismail Zabiulla, Adv.;

For Respondent(s): Shubhranshu Padhi, AOR, Vishal Banshal, Adv., Rajeshawari Shankar, Adv., Niroop Sukrithy, Adv., Jai Nirupam, Adv., Mahesh Thakur, AOR, Shivani, Adv., Vipasha Singh, Adv., Geetanjali Bedi, Adv.

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