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Insults made on an online platform against a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe will attract SC/ST Act: Kerala High Court

The Kerala High Court has upheld that insults made on an online platform against a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe would be liable under the  Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act through Justice Bechu Kurian Thomas in the case of Sooraj V Sukumar v State of Kerala & Anr. (BAIL APPL. NO. 4966 OF 2022 )

FACTS OF THE CASE:

The petitioner was facing an indictment for offences punishable under sections 354A(1)(iv), 509, 294(b) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, sections 66E and 67A of the Information Technology Act 2000, apart from sections 3(1)(r), 3(1)(s) and 3(1)(w)(ii) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. He had invoked the jurisdiction of this Court for obtaining pre-arrest bail.  However, Section 18 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 had curtailed the right of an accused alleged of offences committed under the Act to seek pre-arrest bail.

The petitioner worked as the Managing Director of an online news station. The victim had filed a complaint against her employer, another media person, stating that he was forcing her to videograph her nudity in order to generate a morphing video of a State minister. The victim’s employer was arrested after registering a crime. Prompted by the arrest of a friend and fellow media person, the petitioner aired an interview on his online channel. The video shows the petitioner interviewing the victim’s husband and father-in-law. The interview, which was broadcast on the petitioner’s web media, was posted on YouTube and shared on Facebook.

The offence was filed on the grounds that the petitioner’s interview contained insults, hostility, and ill-will toward members of the Scheduled Tribe community, in addition to humiliating and ridiculing the victim.  The said crime created an apprehension of arrest in the petitioner’s mind, and thus the application for pre-arrest bail was filed.

JUDGEMENT:

On a perusal of the statements and observations made in the interview, the Court noticed that ‘words’ of a demeaning nature had been used by the petitioner at several stages of the interview. He had also referred to the petitioner as an ‘ST’ on more than one occasion, indicative of knowledge that the victim is a member of the Scheduled Tribe. Thus, the words used by the petitioner in the interview were prima facie insulting, humiliating and abusive, made with the knowledge that the victim belongs to a Scheduled Tribe community.

It also held with the prosecution that in the digital age, where the concept of viewing has evolved, a purposeful interpretation is required and that the doctrine of ongoing statute must be applied. As the petitioner’s video is still available on social media and can be viewed by anybody with a simple click or swipe, the Court concluded that it indicates the presence of the public and the victim in the video’s broadcast.

Section 3(1)(w)(ii) of the SC/ST Act was also alleged against the petitioner. The said provision contemplates words, acts or gestures of a sexual nature towards a woman belonging to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe. Though arguments were advanced on the inapplicability of section 3(1)(w)(ii) of the Act, the Court did not propose to consider the said question in view of the findings on the applicability of sections 3(1)(r) and 3(1)(s). Therefore the question of whether an offence under section 3(1)(w)(ii) of the Act is prima facie made out or not was left open.

In light of the foregoing, the Court determined that offences under the SC/ST Act are prima facie attracted and, as a result, dismissed the anticipatory bail plea.

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JUDGEMENT REVIEWED BY REETI SHETTY

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