On 3 July, the Delhi High Court ruled that casteist slurs made on social media—including in closed groups— against people belonging to the SC/ST community would be punishable. Such an offence falls foul of Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST Act, which penalises anybody who "intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view."
The ruling has been generally welcomed by the SC/ST community, but there are also concerns that it impinges on the freedom of speech and may be misused. The judgment also seems to contradict the reasoning behind Supreme Court striking down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act as unconstitutional. The court had then held that "the mere causing of annoyance, inconvenience, danger, etc., or being grossly offensive or having a menacing character [on the internet] are not offences under the [Indian] Penal Code at all."
Sometimes debating patiently with the prejudiced can effect a greater change in mindset than invoking the law.
This is not the first time that the SC/ST Act has come under fire from proponents of freedom of speech. Human Rights Watch (HRW), for example, had called it draconian, claiming that it restricted freedom of speech by targeting humiliating speech rather than hateful speech. HRW made the distinction that disrespectful speech was not the same as incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.
The vagueness of Section 3(1)(x) is because of the complexity of caste discrimination. It is different from other discriminations as it is not based on visible characteristics such as gender or skin colour. It is also very subtle. It takes years of biased/prejudiced social conditioning of a person in the family and society to mould a person to think that somebody who belongs to a "lower caste" is somehow inferior to others who are born into a higher caste. The government policy of reservation in education and jobs for SC/ST persons adds to this bias and fuels hostility towards the community because of the perception that they are getting benefits at the expense of the upper castes.
In such a society, mere information about somebody's caste becomes the key to discrimination.
Those who're opposed to the Delhi High Court's ruling argue that abusive language is not inciting discrimination or violence. But information about somebody's caste— whether it's abusive or otherwise—itself is grounds for discrimination in a society ridden with casteism, examples of which can be read and heard about on a daily basis (although such discrimination is often insidious and in most cases never reported). In addition, SC/STs have pointed out time and again that the police often fail to heed their complaints of severe discrimination, hostility and violence, sometimes refusing to file complaints under the provisions of the SC/ST Act.
Ultimately, even if discrimination takes the form of "innocuous" mocking of a person's caste on social media fuels the climate of anger and hostility towards Dalits. It may "mark" a person as a Dalit and make them vulnerable. The caste of a person should be confidential and only known to the government so that appropriate assistance may be provided to the lower castes that have suffered historical imbalances in wealth and education because of casteism.
Of course, this ruling of the High Court may deter some persons from indulging in casteist slurs, but will not put an end to it. In fact, those who consider this law as biased against them may indulge more in such abuse as a mark of protest against any clampdown on free speech. I believe that the SC/ST community needs to be mindful of these realities. They would do well to use the provisions of the law only after trying other informal means to fight casteist slurs. Sometimes debating patiently with the prejudiced can effect a greater change in mindset than invoking the law. The upper castes have the onus of putting an end to casteist behaviour. The aim, in the end, has to be to build mutual respect irrespective of caste differences, and an unprejudiced openness to hear the other side of the argument. Once this happens, there will be fewer slurs and more conversations on social media.