Article 17 of the Constitution:
Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of Untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.
Untouchability is neither defined in the Constitution nor in the Act. It refers to a social practice which looks down upon certain depressed classes solely on account of their birth and makes any discrimination against them on this ground. Their physical touch was considered to pollute others. Such castes which were called untouchables were not to draw water from the same wells, or use the pond/tank which is being used by the higher castes. They were not allowed to enter some temples and suffered many other disabilities.
Inclusion of this provision in the Constitution shows the importance attached by the Constituent Assembly towards eradication of this evil practice. Article 17 is also a significant provision from the point of view of equality before law (Article 14). It guarantees social justice and dignity of man, the twin privileges which were denied to a vast section of the Indian society for centuries together.
This right is directed against private persons. The nature of untouchability is such that it is not possible to conceive where the State may practice untouchability. In People’s Union for Democratic Rights v UOI, the Supreme Court held that whenever a fundamental right contained in Arts. 17, 23 or 24 was being violated by a private individual, it would be the constitutional obligation of the State to take necessary steps to interdict such violation and ensure that such person should respect the right. Merely because the aggrieved person could himself protect or enforce his invaded fundamental rights, did not absolve the State from its constitutional obligations.
Article 35 read with Article 17 confer on the Parliament power to make laws prescribing punishment for practicing untouchability. The Parliament enacted the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955. In 1976, it was made more stringent and was renamed ‘The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955. It defines ‘Civil Right’ as ‘any right accruing to a person by reason of the abolition of untouchability by Article 17 of the Constitution.’ All offences under the Act have been made non-compoundable. The Act prescribes punishment (1-2 years imprisonment) for preventing any person from entering any place of public worship or from worshipping or denying access to any shop, public restaurants, hotels or places of public entertainment or refusing to admit persons to hospitals and refusing to sell goods or render services to any person. Also, insulting a member of Scheduled Caste on the ground of untouchability or preaching untouchability or justifying it on historical, philosophical, religious or other grounds is a crime.
To prevent the commission of offences or atrocities against the members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Parliament also enacted the ‘Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.’ The Act provides for special courts for the trial of offences under the Act and for the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of such offences. Atrocities committed against a Hindu SC or ST, who had converted to another religion, can be prosecuted under the Act, if the victim is still suffering from social disability. In State of Karnataka v Appa Balu Ingale, the Supreme Court expressing its concern on the continuance of the practice of untouchability, held that it was an indirect form of slavery and only extension of caste system.