The presence of provisions in state prison manuals encouraging caste discrimination are “very disturbing”, the Supreme Court remarked on Wednesday, reported Bar and Bench.

A bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud made the comments while reserving its judgement in a plea filed by journalist Sukanya Shantha.

In a written submission to the court, Shantha had said that “there is rampant practice of caste-based division of labour, segregation and discrimination against the denotified tribes inside Indian prisons”.

Her plea pointed out the presence of provisions in state prison manuals that discriminate against prisoners who belong to denotified tribes, who are referred to as criminal or wandering and nomadic tribes in the manuals.

Prisoners belonging to this group, along with those classified as habitual offenders, are given manual labour assignments based on their caste, Shantha’s petition said.

The petition sought the repeal of such discriminatory provisions found in the prison manuals of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Punjab, Odisha, Jharkhand, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.

The petitioner also told the court that caste-based discrimination in prisons extends to the segregation of barracks.

The plea cited the old Uttar Pradesh Prison Manual, 1941, which designated cleaning, conservancy and sweeping work to prisoners on the basis of their caste, reported Live Law.

In 2022, amendments were made to align the prison manual with the Centre’s Model Prison Manual, 2016, which removed the provision for allotting work on the basis of caste.

State governments formulate their own prison manuals based on guidelines provided in the Model Prison Manual brought out by the home affairs ministry.

Despite this, the 2022 manual continued to uphold a rule related to the segregation of habitual offenders on caste grounds, reported Live Law.

The petitioner also said that the Model Prison Manual was silent on the matter of “caste-based division of labour inside prisons except cooking”, in addition to “caste-based privileges provided to certain prisoners except during celebration of festivals” and the “classification or physical caste-based segregation of prisoners except in women’s prisons”.

The Model Prison Manual also did not clarify its stand on the banned practice of manual scavenging and discriminatory classifications of “members of denotified and wandering tribes”.

In January, the Supreme Court had issued notice to the Union government and eleven states in the matter.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court observed that instructions by states prohibiting such practices are not always followed, reported Bar and Bench.

“Ground reality has to be altered,” the bench said. “We will hold [people] responsible in our judgement.”

The bench said that it would appoint nodal officers and ask the Centre to clarify the purportedly ambiguous provisions in state prison manuals pointed out by the petitioners, reported Live Law.

District Legal Services Authorities would be tasked with ensuring that the judgement is duly implemented, the court said.