Ayushmann Khurrana’s Article 15 & the Law punishing Atrocities against SC & ST

The motion poster for the movie.

The Republic of India celebrates its 73rd Republic Day today i.e., 26 January 2022. On this day, the erstwhile dominion of India became a Republic i.e., a nation governed by its own Constitution. This Constitution was a result of extensive labour and discussion by a Constituent Assembly consisting of representatives from all over the country. The Constitution created a sovereign democratic republic. Shri Rajendra Prasad was sworn in as independent India’s first President / Rashtrapati. In his speech, Prasad emphasised that India’s main objective was to ensure justice, liberty and equality for its people. 

The ideal of equality was enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution and was even made a protected right. Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees to every person in India the Right to Equality, Article 15 prohibits discrimination against a citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth and Article 16 guarantees to every citizen equality of opportunity in matters of public employment. Article 17 abolishes the practice of untouchability which was prevalent against certain classes in India and Article 23 prohibits trafficking of human beings, begar and other forms of forced labour. 

However, despite these protections, India has failed to live up to the ideal of equality and even today, atrocities are committed on grounds of caste, religion, race, sex etc. In this post, I focus on ‘caste’ and explain the law punishing atrocities against members of Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes, through the movie Article 15. 

1. The Movie:

The movie Article 15 is directed by Anubhav Sinha and features actors like Ayushmann Khurrana, Nassar, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra, Isha `Talwar etc.  The movie shows a police investigation revolving around the disappearance of three Dalit girls. Investigation reveals that the girls were raped and thereafter hung, in an act of social punishment. The movie’s title ‘Article 15’ is a reference to the provision of the Constitution which prohibits the state and its authorities from discriminating against any citizen on the ground of caste. The movie highlights that casteism is pervasive and deeply entrenched in our society. It remarkably shows the caste biases that affect the state, its officials, and even the citizens. 

There is a particular scene in the movie which caused a furore in the public, resulting in demands to ban the movie. In the scene, Ayushmann Khurrana (playing an IPS officer who is unaware about the menace of casteism in his district) asks his colleagues about their respective caste and some other questions. Hearing their responses, Khurrana yells at them saying ‘what the hell is going on here’ and walks off. 

The scene can be watched here. 

Thereafter, Ayushmann is threatened by an inquiry officer that he can be booked under the SC/ST act for asking the caste of his colleagues.

2. What is the SC/ST Act?

Before discussing the Act, a background of its enactment and the law prior to it would be beneficial. Traditionally, according to the varna system, Hindus were divided in four groups i.e., Brahmin (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (businessmen and traders) and Shudras (the labour class). These groups were ranked hierarchically with Brahmins being the most revered and the Shudras, the least. There was another group called ‘avarna’ which were not considered a part of the varna system. They were involved in disposing animal carcasses, cleaning excreta and other tasks that involved contact with ‘unclean materials’. ‘Avarnas’ were considered impure and hence, were treated with contempt and humiliation. They were denied access to public places, basic necessities of life (water, food, clothing etc.) and were tortured by the other classes. 

The Constitution of India recognised ‘avarnas’ as Scheduled Castes (‘SC’) and granted them protection from discrimination through Articles 15, 16, 17, 23 etc. (discussed above). Similar protection was granted to members of the Scheduled Tribes (‘ST’) i.e., communities that were marginalised on the basis of geographical location. Further, the Constitution imposed a non-binding obligation on the state to make legislations which uplift and promote educational interests of SC and ST (Article 46). In order to ensure adequate representation from the communities, provisions allowing reservation of seats for the members in matters of government posts were incorporated and the state was also allowed to make such reservation in other spheres as well.

These safeguards were only enforceable against the government, leaving actions of private individuals unchecked. To address this, in the year 1955 the Parliament passed the Untouchability (Offences) Act (later the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955(“PCR Act”). The PCR Act made untouchability on grounds of religious and social disabilities as an offence carrying imprisonment of one month – six months, along with fine. This legislation failed to achieve its intended objective due to legal loopholes and inadequate punishment. Therefore, in the year 1989 the parliament passed the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (‘Atrocities Act’)

The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Atrocities Act reads,
1. Despite various measures to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, they remain vulnerable. They are denied number of civil rights. They are subjected to 4 various offences, indignities, humiliations and harassment. They have, in several brutal incidents, been deprived of their life and property. Serious crimes are committed against them for various historical, social and economic reasons.
2. Because of the awareness created amongst the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes through spread of education, etc., they are trying to assert their rights, and this is not being taken very kindly by the others. When they assert their rights and resist practices of untouchability against them or demand statutory minimum wages or refuse to do any bonded and forced labour, the vested interests try to cow them down and terrorise them. When the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes try to preserve their self-respect or honour of their women, they become irritants for the dominant and the mighty. Occupation and cultivation of even the Government allotted land by the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes is resented and more often these people become victims of attacks by the vested interests. Of late, there has bene an increase in the disturbing trend of commission of certain atrocities like making the Scheduled Caste persons eat inedible substances like human excreta and attacks on and mass killings of helpless Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes and rape of women belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Under the circumstances, the existing laws like the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 and the normal provisions of the Indian Penal Code have been found to be inadequate to check these crimes. A special Legislation to check and deter crimes against them committed by non-Scheduled Castes and non-Scheduled Tribes has, therefore, become necessary.”

The salient features of the Act are: 

  • It identifies new offences that are not covered in the Indian Penal Code i.e., parading a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe naked in public, stripping them in public, shaving and tonsuring their heads etc. These offences were created after observing the derogatory acts committed on the members of the communities (more offences are listed in Section 3 of the Act, which is reproduced at the end of the post). 
  • It provides that investigation of complaints under the Act is to be conducted by senior police officials and completed within 30 days (Rule 7, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules, 1995). 
  • It creates Special Courts with special powers for trying offences under the Act.
  • It provides the victims with financial assistance to fight their case. 

The procedure for filing a complaint under the Act can be explained in the following steps:

Step One: Upon commission of an offence under the Act, a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe (‘victim’) approaches a police station to register her/his complaint. 
Step Two: The Police officials have to mandatorily register the complaint, read it out to the victim and provide her/him a free copy of it.
Step Three: The officials investigate the case within 30 days. 
Interestingly, a person who is or may be accused of an offence under the Act cannot obtain an anticipatory bail. 
Step Four: After trial by the Special Court, the perpetrator is punished with imprisonment for a term ranging from six months to five years and fine. 

Coming back to the movie where Ayushmann is threatened for violating the Atrocities Act. The Section that can be invoked against Ayushman is Section 3(1)(x), which makes it an offence to intentionally insult or intimidate, with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe in any place within a public view. The key requirement in this Section, is ‘intention’  and an offence is committed only where the act of intimidation or humiliation is done with an intention to do so. 

The Supreme Court of India in Swaran Singh and Ors., v. State (2008) 8 SCC 435 reiterated this requirement. The court was dealing with a case wherein a member of the Scheduled Caste complained about being called a ‘chamar’ by his employer’s neighbours. The Court here observed, 
“21. Today the word “chamar” is often used by people belonging to the so-called upper castes or even by OBCs as a word of insult, abuse and derision. Calling a person “chamar” today is nowadays an abusive language and is highly offensive. In fact, the word “chamar” when used today is not normally used to denote a caste but to intentionally insult and humiliate someone.

23. This is the age of democracy and equality. No people or community should be today insulted or looked down upon, and nobody’s feelings should be hurt. This is also the spirit of our Constitution and is part of its basic features. Hence, in our opinion, the so-called upper castes and OBCs should not use the word “chamar” when addressing a member of the Scheduled Caste, even if that person in fact belongs to the “chamar” caste, because use of such a word will hurt his feelings. In such a country like ours with so much diversity and so many religions, castes, ethnic and lingual groups, etc.–all communities and groups must be treated with respect, and no one should be looked down upon as an inferior. That is the only way we can keep our country united.
24. In our opinion, calling a member of the Scheduled Caste “chamar” with intent to insult or humiliate him in a place within public view is certainly an offence under Section 3(1)(x) of the Act. Whether there was intent to insult or humiliate by using the word “chamar” will of course depend on the context in which it was used.”

Therefore, the act of Ayushmann asking his colleagues about their caste would have been an offence, if it was accompanied by an ‘intention’ to insult them, which it was not. 

Concluding Remarks:

The movie Article 15 acts as a mirror to the casteism and caste prejudices prevalent in our society, even today. It aims to highlight the perils of the superiority or purity complex present in other castes and how this complex manifest itself in abhorring ways. The movie was a mirror that the society could not handle, which was evident from the numerous complaints filed against the makers. 

For instance, the Brahman Samaj of India (an organisation allegedly representing the upper caste Brahmins) filed a petition before the Supreme Court to cancel the certification granted to the movie, since it contains casteist elements and could incite public order and cast violence (Writ Petition (Civil)  No.816/2019). Similarly, another complaint was filed in a Court in Mirzapur alleging that the movie depicts Brahmins in a disparaging manner. The complaint sought initiation of criminal proceedings against the makers and Khurrana for the offences of giving provocation to cause a riot, promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, language etc. and jeopardising communal harmony besides causing defamation and making a criminal threat. 

Thankfully, the Courts refused to entertain the petitions but that did not stop the mobs, which attacked movie theatres and coerced the theatre owners to stop the movie’s screening. This severe and violent reaction towards the movie was a reiteration that our society has agreed to live in the status quo and anybody who tries to remind it of the ‘ideal of equality’ enshrined in the Constitution, has to face severe backlash. 

Let’s hope that on the 73rd  anniversary of our Constitution, we shed our prejudices and biases, and truly adopt the principles of our Constitution. Let’s hope that “We the People of India secure to all our fellow citizens EOUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation”. 

Jai Hind!

Section 3 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act: 
3. Punishment for offences of atrocities-
1. Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe – 
forces a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe to drink or eat any inedible or obnoxious substance 
ii. acts with intent to cause injury, insult or annoyance to any member of a Scheduled Caste, or a Scheduled Tribe by dumping excreta, waste matter, carcasses or any other obnoxious substance in his premises or neighbourhood;
iii. forcibly removes clothes from the person of a member of a Schedul-ed Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or parades him naked or with painted face or body or commits any similar act which is derogatory to human dignity 
iv. wrongfully occupies or cultivates any land owned by, or allotted to, or notified by any competent authority to be allotted to, a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or gets the land allotted to him transferred; 
v. wrongfully dispossesses a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe from his land or premises or interferes with the enjoyment of his rights over any land, premises or water 
vi. compels or entices a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe to do ‘begar’ or other similar forms of forced or bonded labour other than any compulsory service for public purposes imposed by Government 
vii. forces or intimidates a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe not to vote or to vote to a particular candidate or to vote in a manner other than that provided by law 
viii. institutes false, malicious or vexatious suit or criminal or other legal proceedings against a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe 
ix. gives any false or frivolous information to any public servant and thereby causes such public servant to use his lawful power to the injury or annoyance of a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe 
x. intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view 
xi. assaults or uses force to any woman belonging to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe with intent to dishonour or outrage her modesty 
xii. being in a position to dominate the will of a woman belonging to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe and uses that position to exploit her sexually to which she would not have otherwise agreed 
xiii. corrupts or fouls the water of any spring, reservoir or any other source ordinarily used by members of the Scheduled Castes or a Scheduled Tribes so as to render it less fit for the purpose for which it is ordinarily used.” 

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