Caste discrimination in prisons must end, says CJI

The CJI referred to a paragraph from prison documents that said convicts serving simple imprisonment would not be called on to perform menial or degrading duties unless they belonged to a class or community ‘accustomed’ to such work

Updated - July 11, 2024 12:12 am IST

Published - July 10, 2024 05:58 pm IST - NEW DELHI

The Supreme Court indicated its intention to ask the Ministry of Home Affairs to intervene with States to re-haul their prison manuals.

The Supreme Court indicated its intention to ask the Ministry of Home Affairs to intervene with States to re-haul their prison manuals. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The Supreme Court on July 10 indicated its intention to ask the Ministry of Home Affairs to intervene with States to re-haul their prison manuals and wipe out hardly acknowledged but existing practices of caste-based discrimination of prisoners.

Though States like Uttar Pradesh denied caste-based discrimination within their prison walls, a Bench headed by the Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud read out portions from its prison documents, which use terms like “scavenger class”.

At one point, Chief Justice Chandrachud referred to a paragraph which said convicts serving simple imprisonment would not be called on to perform menial or degrading duties unless they belonged to a class or community “accustomed” to such work.

Senior advocate S. Muralidhar and advocate Prasanna S., appearing for petitioner-journalist Sukanya Shantha, pointed out that in Madhya Pradesh, if a convict was a member of a denotified tribe, he or she would automatically be seen as a habitual criminal.

“This ground reality has to be altered,” Chief Justice Chandrachud remarked.

The court mooted involving the legal services authorities, both at the district and State levels to conduct periodic visits to jails to check on the prisoners. It reserved the case for judgment.

Earlier, in January, the apex court had found that prison manuals in more than 10 States, including Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, continued to have provisions that sanctioned discrimination and forced labour on the grounds of caste in prisons.

Mr. Muralidhar submitted that centuries of caste discrimination continued unabated inside prisons. Labour was segregated on the basis of caste. Modern manuals promoting reforms in prisons seemed to not have 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 had submitted.

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

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