Article 17 abolishes ‘untouchability’ and forbids its practice in any form. The enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.
In 1976, the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955 has been comprehensively amended and renamed as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 to enlarge the scope and make penal provisions more stringent. The act defines civil right as any right accruing to a person by reason of the abolition of untouchability by Article 17 of the Constitution.
The term ‘untouchability’ has not been defined either in the Constitution or in the Act. However, the Mysore High Court held that the subject matter of Article 17 is not untouchability in its literal or grammatical sense but the ‘practice as it had developed historically in the country’. It refers to the social disabilities imposed on certain classes of persons by reason of their birth in certain castes. Hence, it does not cover social boycott of a few individuals or their exclusion from religious services, etc.
The Supreme Court held that the right under Article 17 is available against private individuals and it is the constitutional obligation of the State to take necessary action to ensure that this right is not violated.