Sentence of life imprisonment not faulty when it involves a heinous crimes against woman belonging to Schedule Caste: Supreme Court

The experience of rape induces trauma and horror for any woman regardless of her social position in the society. But the experiences of assault are different in the case of a woman who belongs to a Scheduled Caste community and has a disability because the assault is a result of the interlocking of different relationships of power at play. The Court did an in-depth analysis of intersectional oppression, the punishment to be awarded in such cases and what all factors need to be considered by the Courts while dealing with such cases and also set forth some guidelines. This remarkable judgment was passed by the Supreme Court in the matter of PATAN JAMAL VALI V THE STATE OF ANDHRA PRADESH [CRIMINAL APPEAL NO 452 OF 2021] by Honourable Justice Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud.

This appeal arises from a judgment of a Division Bench of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh where the High Court affirmed the conviction of the appellant for offences punishable under Section 3(2)(v) of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 19891 and Section 376(1) of the Indian Penal Code. The appellant was sentenced to suffer imprisonment for life for each of the above offences and had to pay a fine of Rs. 1,000 for each of the offences.

The appellant was engaged in carrying out manual work for two years prior to the incident. PW2 who is blind since birth used to live with her mother (PW1) and brother. The appellant and the victim’s mother, worked together and he regularly visited the house.

At about 9 am on 31 March 2011, PW1 was attending to her household chores, the appellant then enquired about her sons and went. After half an hour, she heard her blind daughter’s distressed cry and found that the door was locked from inside. The appellant opened the door and tried to escape but was apprehended at the spot. Upon entering the house, it was observed that PW2 was lying on the ground in a nude condition and was bleeding from her genitals and her clothes were torn. Later she confirmed that appellant gagged and raped her.

In the Sessions Court and the High Court, it was submitted from the petitioner’s side that he is a poor person therefore the courts should take a lenient view for his sentencing under Section 376 and additionally, contended that that the ingredients of the offence under Section 3(2)(v) were not established as the offence was not committed “on the ground” that PW2 belongs to a Scheduled Caste.  This view was rejected by the Sessions Court and the High Court. The Supreme Court asserted that the offence under Section 376 has been established beyond reasonable doubt and the Court shall only, proceed to deal with the question of the conviction and sentence under the SC & ST Act.

The Apex Court said, “When the identity of a woman intersects with, inter alia, her caste, class, religion, disability and sexual orientation, she may face violence and discrimination due to two or more grounds. Transwomen may face violence on account of their heterodox gender identity. In such a situation, it becomes imperative to use an intersectional lens to evaluate how multiple sources of oppression operate cumulatively to produce a specific experience of subordination for a blind Scheduled Caste woman.

Additionally, the court observed a disturbing trend is in place wherein sexual violence against women and girls with disabilities is on an increased number and hence the Judge asserted that it is high time that we set in motion a thought process for how the structural realities resulting in this state of affairs can be effectively addressed.

women with disabilities, who inhabit a world designed for the able-bodied, are often perceived as “soft targets” and “easy victims” for the commission of sexual violence. It is for this reason that our legal response to such violence, in the instant case as well as at a systemic level, must exhibit attentiveness to this salient fact.”

The Top Court asserted that through the recommendations of Justice J.S. Verma Committee certain reforms were made in criminal legal structure of the nation. Since they attached special emphasis to creating an enabling environment to enable women with disabilities to report cases of sexual violence and to obtain suitable redressal. However, it was observed that, “changes in the law on the books mark a significant step forward, much work still needs to be done in order to ensure that their fruits are realized by those for whose benefit they were brought.” In this regard, Supreme Court set out some guidelines to make our criminal justice system more disabled-friendly.

Additionally, the credibility of the testimony of the disabled prosecutrix was also questioned. In this regard the Court stated that, “We are of the considered view that presumptions of such nature which construe disability as an incapacity to participate in the legal process reflect not only an inadequate understanding of how disability operates but may also result in a miscarriage of justice through a devaluation of crucial testimonies given by persons with disabilities. The legal personhood of persons with disabilities cannot be premised on societal stereotypes of their supposed “inferiority”, which is an affront to their dignity and a negation of the principle of equality.”

Also, the court with regards to the question of the conviction and sentence under the SC & ST Act asserted that, “The key words are “on the ground that such person is a member of a SC or ST”. The expression “on the ground” means “for the reason” or “on the basis of”. The above provision (as it stood at the material time prior to its amendment, which will be noticed later) is an example of a statute recognizing only a single axis model of oppression. As we have discussed above, such single axis models require a person to prove a discrete experience of oppression suffered on account of a given social characteristic. However, when oppression operates in an intersectional fashion, it becomes difficult to identify, in a disjunctive fashion, which ground was the basis of oppression because often multiple grounds operate in tandem.”

Therefore, it was asserted that the provisions will not be read in a single lens manner since “reading the provision in that manner will dilute a statutory provision which is meant to safeguard the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes against acts of violence which pose a threat to their dignity”

The current regime under the SC & ST Act, post the amendment, has facilitated the conduct of an intersectional analysis under the Act by replacing the causation requirement under Section 3(2)(v) of the Act but since the offence took place before the amendment, the conviction under Section 3(2)(v) was consequently set aside.

But the nature and circumstances in which the offence has been committed would leave no manner of doubt that the appellant had indeed taken advantage of the position of the woman who was blind since birth and so the Court read the observations of the Sessions Judge with a robust common-sense perception of ground realities. Thus, the Supreme court upheld the conviction under Section 376(1) of the Penal Code.

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