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What is Article 17 of Indian Constitution

Posted by Admin on November 26, 2014 | Comment

One of the vital steps that independent India took was the effort towards eradication of untouchability. Finally, the Indian Constitution abolished the practice of untouchability in 1950. The lawmakers included provisions within the Constitution that can provide measures for positive discrimination in both educational institutions and public services for the socially backward groups.

Article 17 of the Indian Constitution is a legislation that abolishes practice of untouchability in any form. According to the provision of Article 17, “enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability” is a punishable offence in accordance with law.

What is Article 17 of Indian Constitution

Purpose of Article 17

Article 17 is considered one of the earliest manifestations of India’s effort towards bringing social reforms. By enacting this Article, the government of independent India acted earnestly to abolish the scourge of caste discrimination. The purpose behind this legislation is the liberation of society from orthodox beliefs and rituals that have lost both legal and moral base. The Constitution-makers not only provided for criminalising any form of social discrimination but also punishing those who practice such discriminations.

The ostensible objective was to put an end to humiliation and harassment faced by the dalits and backward classes and ensure that their fundamental rights are preserved. Although Article 17 doesn’t define the term ‘untouchability’, it generally means the “social restrictions” imposed on certain sections of society when it comes to accessing public places, offering prayers and performing religious services, and getting to enjoy fundamental rights.

Legislations that Further Strengthen Article 17

In order to strengthen the constitutional provision in Article 17, the Parliament enacted the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 (formerly known as Untouchability Offences Act). Within five years of the adoption of the Constitution, the government came up with this Act that penalises manifestations of untouchability in any form which include enforcing religious and social disabilities, refusing to admit persons to hospitals, and unlawful compulsory labour. As per the Act, the offender “shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than one month and not more than six months.”

Someone had rightly said that legislations can’t be a remedy for prejudices. Apart from being confined to cases of caste prejudice and discrimination, the legal instrument had glaring loopholes that compelled the government to opt for a major overhaul.

Expansion of Article 17 – Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 

To expand the ambit of Article 17, the Rajiv Gandhi government came up with the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. The new legislation was enacted to deal with more violent caste-driven atrocities against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Although these legislations have a dismal record of enforcement, they carry a symbolic value – India treats caste discrimination as a serious form of human rights violations.

Criticism of Article 17

It’s to be noted that neither Article 17 nor related legislations find any mention about abolishing caste system and untouchability, which is the root cause of widespread discrimination. These legislations only talk about abolishing untouchability as a practice. According to the experts, Indian government should not be “tinkering with the problem of untouchability superficially” but do away with the caste distinction.