Centre’s “advice” to Media to refrain from using the term Dalit challenged in Supreme Court

A petition has been filed in Supreme Court challenging the Constitutional validity of a circular issued by the Central government by which the media has been “advised” to refrain from using the word ‘Dalit’ while referring to members of  the Scheduled Caste.

The petition filed through advocate Sriram P by individuals and organisations working in the field of protection and promotion of the cause of Dalits, submits that the circular is arbitrary, irrational, unreasonable, discriminatory and contrary to Articles 14, 15, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India.

The circular dated August 7, 2018, which was issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting pursuant to an order of the Bombay High Court dated June 6, 2018, states the following:

“It is accordingly advised that media may refrain from using the nomenclature “Dalit” while referring to members belonging to Scheduled Caste in compliance with the directions of the Hon’ble Bombay High Court and the Constitutional term ‘Scheduled Caste’ in English, and its appropriate translation in other national languages should alone be used for all official transaction, matters, dealings, certificates etc. for denoting the persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes notified in the Presidential Orders issued under Article 341 of the Constitution of India.”

The petitioners have submitted that the word “Dalit” is a self-chosen name, used as a “positive self-identifier and as a political identity”, to describe the pan-Indian community of all those who have been affected by the Caste System and the practice of untouchability for several centuries and thus deprived of social, economic, political and cultural rights.

“The Community identifies with the word ‘Dalit’, pride for the history of the Community’s past and ongoing struggle against the caste system and its various evils; with continued and relentless activism against oppression, discrimination and untouchability; and with the continued quest for full and equal citizenship as contemplated under the Constitution.”

About the word “Dalit”, the petition states,

“The word ‘Dalit’ is derived from the Sanskit word ‘Dalita’ which means “divided, split, broken, scattered”. This word was first used in the 19th Century to mean a person not falling into the fold of the Chatur-Varna caste system and therefore subjected to untouchability. It is believed that this word was initially used to describe those who fell outside the Chatur – Varna system in an attempt to highlight the nature and effect of the oppression and discrimination perpetuated upon “untouchable” Hindus by Hindus of caste.”

The community considers the word ‘Dalit’ “an anchor for the movement for establishing a society based on liberty, equality and fraternity”. The word ‘Dalit’ is a very substantive part of the consciousness of this pan-Indian movement, and cannot be excised from it without causing great harm and damage to it, the petition states.

In the background, the petitioners have contended that the impugned circular has no rational nexus to its ostensible objective.

“The ostensible reason/ rationale for the issuance of the impugned circular, seems to be prevent hurt and insult caused to people and communities by the reference to them as ‘Dalit’. However this is without any basis in any fact as it is a term embraced by the Community to describe itself.”

In any event, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, already contains provisions punishing the reference of a member of any of these communities by caste names and there is no need for further regulation in this regard as the said Act is an complete code in itself, the petitioners argue.

“This Impugned Circular seeks to circumvent the legislative mechanism that already exists for adjudication of such issues.”

It is the petitioners’ argument that the circular, by directing private channels not to use the term “Dalit”, creates a chilling effect on the use of the term by individuals for their self-determination and identity formation, and is therefore in violation of Article 19 of the Constitution of India.

Further, the circular violates the right of the Scheduled Castes to choice, personal autonomy, self-determination and expression of their own identity by encroaching upon the freedom of the individuals who wish to be referred to as “Dalits”. This, the petition argues amounts to a violation of Article 21.

It is also submitted that the circular is an insidious attempt to prevent the consolidation of a Dalit Identity to prevent persons and communities identifying as ‘Dalit’ from associating to mobilize and organize cross the nation for the realization of common goals. This, the petitioners have contended is a violation of the right to freedom to form associations as guaranteed under Article 19(1)(c)

Thus, the circular though issued with the purported intention of protecting minorities, has in fact curtailed the rights of the said minorities, the petitioners have submitted.

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