PIL challenges 1960 law that ‘criminalises’ beggars out of ‘prejudice’

PIL challenges 1960 law that ‘criminalises’ beggars out of ‘prejudice’
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High Court asks government’s response within 4 weeks

Srinagar: The J&K High Court has given four weeks to state authorities to respond to a fresh Public Interest Litigation (PIL) which has challenged the constitutional validity of Jammu & Kashmir Prevention of Beggary Act, 1960.
The PIL has also challenged rules under Section 9 of the Act as being violative of Constitutional Articles 14, 19, 20, 21 and 22.
The litigation seeks setting aside of the order dated 23 May, 2018, passed by District Magistrate Srinagar, on the grounds that it violates fundamental rights.
Hearing the PIL moved by Advocate Suhail Rashid Bhat, a division bench of Justice Sanjeev Kumar and Justice Sindhu Sharma granted four weeks to the respondents to file their response.
The petitioner submitted that on 23 May 2018, the District Magistrate Srinagar issued an order for effective implementation of the Begging Act in Srinagar, on the grounds that it was the state’s summer capital and a prime tourist destination.
“The authorities have not hesitated to use the Act as a weapon. The Act and the order of the District Magistrate Srinagar to take beggars off the street envisions public places as exclusionary, closed off to those who look poor. It is a sanitised vision of the public sphere, built upon keeping out the undesirables, those who are not like us,” the petitioner said.
The petitioner argued that the Prevention of Beggary Act and the order of the District Magistrate seeks to remove beggars from public places “lest their presence embarrass the state in the eyes of domestic and foreigner tourists.”
He further stated that the Act encodes into law a vicious prejudice that recently saw a prominent institution putting up spikes outside its Mumbai branch, to deter rough sleeping. “Indeed, the Act and the order of the District Magistrate Srinagar are the legislative equivalent of putting up spikes outside the premises to prevent rough sleeping,” the petition argued.
The petition states that the Prevention of Beggary Act criminalises begging, “deems beggars not to be “good citizens”, empowers the police to arrest an individual without a warrant, gives magistrates the power to commit them to sick homes, beggars’ homes or children’s homes (hereinafter “Homes”) for up to three years on the commission of the first “offence”, and up to 10 years upon the second offence.”
It states that the Act reflects a vicious logic in its preamble itself, which lists its aim as “preventing beggary and making beggars good citizens.”
The petition pointed out that the words, “making beggars good citizens”, make clear that the purpose of the Act is not simply to criminalise the act of begging, “but to target groups and communities whose patterns of life do not fit within those of so-called “good citizens”. The act presumes every beggar not to be a good citizen.”
The petition states that the definition of “begging” in the Act includes “soliciting or receiving alms in a public place, whether or not under any pretence” and “having no visible means of subsistence and wandering about or remaining in any public place in such condition or manner as makes it likely that the person doing so cannot exist without soliciting or receiving alms.”
The petition says that not only do such vague definitions give unchecked power to the police, but they also reveal prejudices underlying the law.
“The reference to “no visible means of subsistence and wandering about” punishes people for the crime of looking poor, but it also reflects the lawmakers’ desire to erase from public spaces people who look or act differently, whose presence is perceived to be a bother and a nuisance,” the petition argued.