Calling People 'Harijan' or 'Dhobi' Is Offensive: Supreme Court

The SC held that such terms "denote a caste" and these days are used "to intentionally insult and humiliate someone" and so constitute abuse.

In a landmark decision on Friday, the Supreme Court  set aside Patna high court’s decision to grant anticipatory bail to an accused facing charges under Section 3(1) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (SC/ST Act)

The case pertains to an incident in 2009 when some upper caste people assaulted a Dalit women who worked as a domestic helper in their house in Begusarai, Bihar. After ‘outraging her modesty’, the accused also allegedly abused the woman and her family members by calling them ‘harijans’ and ‘dhobis’. They also threatened her with dire consequences if she revealed the incident to anyone else.

After investigating the allegations, the police filed a closure report, but the chief judicial magistrate of Begusarai was dissatisfied with it, and in 2013, took cognisance of the offence, and proceedings were started against the accused under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code as well as the SC/ST Act.

Thereafter,in 2014,  the high court granted anticipatory bail to the accused. The survivor and accuser in the case filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court drew attention to Section 18 of the SC/ST Act, which bars the application of Section 438 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) – dealing with the granting of anticipatory bail – in any case involving the arrest of any person accused committing such an offence.

“The exclusion of Section 438 of the Code in connection with offences under the SC/ST Act has to be viewed in the context of the prevailing social conditions which give rise to such offences, and the apprehension that perpetrators of such atrocities are likely to threaten and intimidate their victims and prevent or obstruct them in the prosecution of these offenders, if the offenders are allowed to avail of anticipatory bail,” the Supreme Court bench, comprising justices R.K. Agrawal and Ashok Bhushan, reasoned in the judgment.

Relying on the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the SC/ST Act, the bench observed that calling a person “Harijan”, “dhobi” and so on nowadays counts as abusive and language and is offensive. “It is basically used nowadays not to denote a caste but to intentionally insult and humiliate someone. We, as a citizen of this country, should always keep one thing in our mind and heart that no people or community should be today insulted or looked down upon, and nobody’s feelings should be hurt”, the court held.

The Supreme Court further held that the offences enumerated under Section 3 of the SC/ST Act constitute a separate class, and cannot be compared with offences under the Indian Penal Code, for which anticipatory bail can be granted. The offences enumerated under Section 3 of the SC/ST Act are offences which, to say the least, denigrate members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the eyes of society and prevent them from leading a life of dignity and self-respect, the bench explained. “Such offences are committed to humiliate and subjugate members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes with a view to keeping them in a state of servitude,” the bench further added.

“A victim of molestation and indignation is in the same position, as an injured witness and her testimony should receive the same weight,” the bench held, while pointing out that Section 3(1)(xi) of the SC/ST Act, which deals with assaults or use of force to any woman belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe with the intent to dishonour or outrage her modesty is an aggravated form of the offence.

“The high court has committed grave error in granting anticipatory bail to the respondents”, the Supreme Court held, while setting aside the Patna high court’s 2014 order granting anticipatory bail to the accused.

The Supreme Court has directed the accused to surrender before the appropriate court and seek regular bail within four weeks.