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regular-article-logo Friday, 21 June 2024

In the open: Editorial on SC clarifying conditions for prosecution for casteist remarks under SC/ST Act

Letter of the law may be puzzling for the layman. A casteist insult, either the caste name or a humiliating or intimidating remark, remains the same whether or not it is pronounced before other people

The Editorial Board Published 24.05.24, 06:50 AM
Supreme Court of India.

Supreme Court of India. File Photo.

Recently the Supreme Court clarified the conditions under which an allegedly casteist remark could be considered culpable under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The abuse with intention to humiliate must be made "in any place within public view", as is stated by the relevant section. Sitting on a petition regarding alleged casteist name-calling in a sporting environment, the Supreme Court pronounced "public view" to mean the presence of persons other than the one being addressed. This was strictly according to the letter of the law. The Supreme Court, therefore, laid aside the Delhi High Court’s order to register a first information report against the persons being accused of pronouncing casteist slurs since the conditions of the alleged insults did not fulfil the requirements of the law.

The letter of the law may, however, be puzzling for the layman. A casteist insult, either the caste name or a humiliating or intimidating remark, remains the same whether or not it is pronounced before other people. A place in public view would ensure the presence of witnesses. At the same time, the determination of what is public may be out of the hands of the person being allegedly insulted. As these situations are premised on a conflict between castes, in which power resides with those from the dominant ones, the circumstances of a public view and its accurate reporting can be problematic. The letter of the law seems to present a razor’s edge, yet the spirit of the law is clear enough: it demands justice and dignity for Dalits and Adivasis. It is a law made in their interest. From that point of view, arguing whether a caste-name was used in passing as a normal part of everyday business — why? — or was intended to humiliate, as often happens in legal exchanges, could seem immaterial to the Dalit or Adivasi person. It might even seem that the burden of proof regarding "intent" to humiliate lies with the person addressed — an impossible task. Any subjective element in a law that attempts to address a sharp imbalance of power — for that is what this law is at its core — needs to be scrutinised with great care every time it is applied to a complaint. Both sides would benefit from that.

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