Supreme Court grants protection to Shajan Skariah from arrest stating, “statements may be defamatory, but these are not offences under the SC/ST Act”

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On July 10, 2023, the Supreme Court granted interim protection to Shajan Skariah, the Malayalam YouTube News Channel ‘Marunadan Malayalee’ editor from arrest. He was ordered to be arrested in a criminal case under the SC/ST Act (SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989) over making derogatory remarks against MLA PV Sreenijin. The bench said, “His statements may be defamatory, but these are not offences under the SC/ST Act. He may have said something against the father-in-law (of the complainant), judiciary, etc, which may be in bad taste.” The matter heard by the Supreme Court bench was in context with a special leave petition filed by Skariah challenging the decision of the dismissal of his appeal by the Kerala High Court against the rejection of anticipatory bail by the Special Court. While giving the order, the bench comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha ordered, “Pending further orders, there shall be a stay of arrest”. The top court will consider the matter after three weeks. 

During the proceedings, the Senior Advocate appearing for Sreenijin, V Giri, requested the SC bench to read the video's transcript. CJI in response told that he already read the transcripts and observed that “There is no whisper of allegation under SC/ST Act. It is true that the complainant belongs to a Scheduled Caste. Merely because your client is a member of SC and he said something nasty to your client, this has no implications on the caste status at all.” Arguing further, the Senior Advocate referred to Section 3(1)(r) of the SC/ST Act which states, “Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view.” Following this, CJI used a hypothetical example to test the argument, he said, “Suppose A, who is a member of Scheduled Case has a contract with B. A takes Rs. 25 lakh but does not return the money to B. B calls him a cheater. Does that amount to offence under the provision?”

Responding to this, the Senior Advocate stated that it totally depends on the intention of a person whether he wants to insult on grounds of caste status or not. CJI further asked, “On the face of the statement, is there anything remotely suggesting that he has humiliated on the ground that you belonged to a Scheduled Caste?” Senior Advocate Giri continued to argue and said that Skariah is an offender who had made various insulting remarks against several persons. The bench further asked Giri, “So should we be teaching him a lesson because we don’t approve of his statement by sending him to jail? That is very harsh.” Giri highlighted various remarks or statements by Shajan Skariah against Sreenijin such as ‘mafia don’, ‘murderer’, ‘black money dealer’, and various others. V Giri further alleged that the comments were not only against Sreenijin’s father-in-law, former Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan, but various others. CJI said, “Such comments may be defamatory, but not offences under SC/ST Act. We totally with you agree that these statements are in bad taste, we disapprove of his statement. But, in criminal law, you have to see the matter strictly because someone’s liberty is at stake.” The bench, after passing the order of granting relief, asked Senior Advocate Siddharth Luthra appearing for Skariah that “He is a senior journalist…counsel him…tell him even the bench felt that while protecting him. Some level of disclosure is always good.”

Apart from this, the SC bench also stated that “The High Court had written such a strong order. So I thought let me go through the statement. Sometimes stronger the order is, you have to be more careful in looking into it.” Earlier, a Single judge bench of Justice VG Arun of the Kerala HC observed that “It is pertinent to note that the allegations leveled against the second respondent include murder and contain insinuation against the second respondent’s father-in-law, aspersions on unnamed judicial officers and bestows the title ‘mafia Don’ on the second respondent. As such, it can unhesitantly be held that the video contains insults, which are intended to humiliate the second respondent (PV Sreenijin) in public view.”