An appeals court recently overturned a lower court ruling stating that a Dalit man, like the one pictured here, had no reputation to be ruined. The appeals court disagreed, declaring that a person’s dignity is not determined by his wealth.
An appeals court judge stunned a lower court when he overruled the lower court judge’s ruling against a Dalit man. The landmark decision was handed down by a judge in India’s Jammu & Kashmir state in March, according to international news reports.
One news correspondent wrote that the appeals court ruling amounted to declaring that, “all Indians were worthy of respect and entitled to a good reputation, regardless of their wealth or social status.”
The historic ruling directly challenges a society norm that says Dalits (“Untouchables”) are inferior human beings and should not be treated with the same respect and dignity as those of higher social status.“The respect and reputation of a person is not dependent upon how much wealth he has accumulated,” the high court judge said.
The case involves Mushtaq Ahmed Mir, an unemployed Dalit man who sued a Kashmiri newspaper that published an incorrect report identifying him as a suspect in a murder case. When Mushtaq filed the case he asked the judge to waive the court fee because he was a Dalit and was too poor to pay. The judge refused to hear the case, saying that Mushtaq was a Dalit and therefore had no reputation that could be damaged by the newspaper report.
“When the plaintiff is not even in a position to pay the lawsuit fee, he cannot seek damages for defamation,” the lower court judge said at the time of his decision. “The dignity of a person of low integrity will not be lowered further in case his name appears in a defamatory piece of news.”
The judge made the ruling, even after admitting that the newspaper story was false.
The high court judge declared that the lower court ruling was “offensive to conscience.”
“The respect and reputation of a person is not dependent upon how much wealth he has accumulated,” the high court judge said.
He also noted that it would be a great disservice to society if only the rich were entitled to respect.
A prominent Indian social commentator said the ruling could mark the beginning of change.
“To say that someone who is poor can’t have status reflects the mindset of another century, but old attitudes die hard,” said Pavan K. Varma. “That the appeals judge threw out the ruling means there’s a beginning of change.”
While the ruling is encouraging, one Dalit leader said it’s only a “symbolic victory.”
“It’s impossible for the poor, minorities and low castes to get justice. The trial judge should be dismissed, but his ruling is closer to reality,” said Dr. Udit Raj. “There is some way to go before Dalits get the respect they’re entitled to under the Constitution.”