Offensive statements on social media like Facebook, whether private or public, that intend to humiliate someone belonging to the scheduled caste or scheduled tribe communities would be a punishable offence, the Delhi high court has said. However, generalised statements against all and sundry and not against a specific individuals from the SC/ST communities would not be considered an offence under section 3(1)(x) of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, Justice Vipin Sanghi said.
“To my mind, it would make no difference whether the privacy settings [on social media accounts] are set by the author of the offending post to private or public. Pertinently, Section 3(1)(x) of the Act does not require that the intentional insult or intimidation with an intention to humiliate a member of SC/ST should take place in the presence of the said member.”
“Even if the victim is not present, and behind his/her back, the offending insult or intimidation with intention to humiliate him/her, who is a member of SC/ST takes place, the same would be culpable if it takes place within public view,” the court said.
Under Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST Act, it is an offence if someone makes statements which intentionally insult or intimidate with the intent of humiliating a member of such communities in any place within public view.
The court said in the case of social media platforms, public view would include any independent or impartial witness who has seen an offensive statement. It, however, said that “generalised statements against all and sundry, and not against specific individuals belonging to SC/ST, would not make out an offence under section 3(1)(x) of the Act.”
The observations came as the court quashed an FIR lodged by a woman against her sister-in-law for allegedly making offensive statements on Facebook against the ‘dhobi’ community. The complainant had accused her sister-in-law of making the statements to humiliate her as she belonged to the ‘dhobi’ community.
The sister-in-law refuted the allegations and sought dismissal of the FIR, saying the statements about ‘dhobis’ were made on her Facebook ‘wall’ and the complainant had been blocked from viewing it. The police, on the other hand, opposed the dismissal of the FIR, saying the privacy status of the posts were changed by the accused from ‘private’ to ‘public’ to enable everyone to read it.
Regarding the petitioner’s argument that her posts were private, the court said that even if posts by a Facebook member are private, making offensive statements that fall foul of section 3(1)(x) of the Act may still be punishable if if any of the author’s Facebook friends are “independent and impartial” persons and “not interested in any of the parties.”
The court, however, said that in the instant case, a perusal of the posts by the petitioner on her ‘wall’ “do not show that they were directed against any individual member of any scheduled caste or scheduled tribe.” “For all the reasons, the FIR as well as the proceedings qua the petitioner under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, are hereby quashed,” the court said.