Supreme Court seeks response from Centre, States on caste discrimination in prisons

A three-judge Bench headed by CJI Chandrachud found that prison manuals in more than 10 States, including U.P., Bengal, Odisha, Maharashtra, T.N. and Kerala, continue to have provisions which sanction discrimination and forced labour on the ground of caste in prisons.

Updated - January 03, 2024 03:10 pm IST

Published - January 03, 2024 12:44 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

Picture for representational purpose only.

Picture for representational purpose only. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The Supreme Court on Wednesday, January 3,2024, said caste-based discrimination of prisoners, segregation of manual work among them according to caste-hierarchy and treatment of inmates from the denotified tribes as “habitual offenders” within the four walls of jails across India is a “very important issue” and needs to be addressed.

A three-judge Bench headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud found that prison manuals in more than 10 States, including Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, continue to have provisions which sanction discrimination and forced labour on the ground of caste in prisons.

The court asked for a response from the States and the Union within four weeks on the petition filed by journalist Sukanya Shantha, represented by senior advocate S. Muralidhar and advocate Prasanna S.

Mr. Muralidhar submitted that centuries of caste discrimination continue unabated inside prisons. Labour is segregated on the basis of caste. The modern manuals promoting reforms in prisons seem to have not entered the prison walls.

“Dalits even have a separate ward in prisons… Despite changes in the prison manuals, caste discrimination continues. These provisions in the prison manuals of the States should be repealed,” the senior lawyer submitted.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta was called upon by the court to assist in the case. “I have seen segregation on the basis of prison status - like convicts are separated from undertrial prisoners - but not caste based discrimination. This is a serious issue,” Mr. Mehta said.

The petition cited how the Rajasthan Prison Rules 1951 had assigned Mehtars to the latrines while the Brahmins or “sufficiently high caste Hindu prisoners” to the kitchens.

“The separation of Thevars, Nadars, Pallars who are allotted different sections in Palayamkottai Central Jail in Tamil Nadu provides a glaring instance of caste-based segregation of barracks,” the petition by Ms. Shantha, whose report on the issue was part of a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

In another instance, the petitions said the West Bengal Jail Code laid down that prisoners from the Mether or Hari caste, Chandal or other castes, would perform menial tasks like sweeping, etc.

The petition said a person is not deprived of his or her fundamental rights or the equality code merely for being a prisoner.

“A prisoner enjoys all constitutional rights and protections except those that are impaired naturally and directly as a result of the confinement,” the petition highlighted the apex court’s judgment in the Sunil Batra case on the fundamental rights of prisoners.

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