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  • Supreme Court judge, Justice Chandrachud delivered the 13th B. R. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture on “Conceptualising marginalisation; Agency, Assertion and Personhood” in an event organised by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung South Asia.
  • At this event, he talked about how the professional achievements of the upper caste put a veil on their caste identity in contrast to the lower caste.
  • He identified some social norms which makes the marginalised section to still feel inferior to the upper caste, even in the presence of so many Constitutional provisions to alleviate their condition.
  • He also suggested some remedies which would help the marginalised section of the society to attain the feeling of belonging in this society.


In regards to the oppression faced by the marginalised section of the society; Justice Chandrachud spoke how the narrow concepts of the merit only allows upper caste individuals to mask their privileges.

He also continued by saying that the merit concept only urges the upper caste to belittle the achievements of those from the backward classes owing to the reservation provided to them.

These people from the marginalised section have to carry the label of being a “backward class” even to avail certain provisions which were provided to them to compensate for this humiliation done in the first place.


Justice Chandrachud started by taking us into our past, with a story from the time of the father of our Constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, when, Babasaheb himself was subjected to the social chains of the caste system.

When Dr. Ambedkar was travelling in Maharashtra where he was to look into certain matters of oppression against Dalits, he met an accident.On inquiry he came to know that the regular Tongawalla had refused to carry a Dalit as his passenger. And so, to uphold the dignity of Babasaheb, one of the villagers had volunteered to drive the chariot. Since the villager was new to the activity, they met an accident.

It was then, Dr. Ambedkar he came to know that a Tongawalla considered himself to be superior than a Dalit even though he may be a Barrister-at-law.


In his speech, honourable Justice mentioned the different criteria for Personhood, in terms of a feature that grants youany right, in terms of a biological feature and in terms of mental attributes and one’s ability to comprehend situations.

He refers to personhood not just as an individual attribute but rather that of the group which can be as simple as belonging in a school and as complex as religion, caste and race.

While defining personhood, he also points out the difference between Citizenship and Personhood, which is often confused. While citizenship can only be formally withdrawn by the law, personhood can be affected by non-legal tools as well. A class of the society maybe citizens in the eyes of the law of the country, yet their status of personhood could be understood by the acts of the society around them.

Dalits are recognised by law as persons and also granted citizenship too. The Constitution defines provisions for their right to equality. In order to ensure equity, reservations in higher education and employment are granted to the Dalit and Tribal communities. The Parliament has also enacted the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 to limit the atrocities committed against members of these marginalised communities. But these Constitution provisions are not enough to protect their personhood.


Justice Chandrachud recognises that marginalisation is due to their membership in a group that is supposed to be inferior than the others.

He emphasised on the fact that, although the State, by making provisions, tries to provide externalisation required for personhood, when Dalits are humiliated, they lose the internalisation, their self-worth in determining personhood, and in this process, they consider themselves to be inferior.

Many people even though succeeding in their respective field have not gained their duerespect because of their ascribed attributes, which is diminishing their personhood.

In Ankush Maruti v. State of Maharashtra case, a petition was allowed to be reviewed by the Supreme Court which later revealed that people belonging to the nomadic tribes were continuously harassed by the investigating officers and often wrongfully suspected for the crimes committed.


Justice Chandrachud cited examples from Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that no one can be denied the benefits of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the basis of their membership to a particular group. He also mentioneda few examples from the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 1, 26 and 27 which state the importance of self, prevention of discrimination due to membership in a particular group and States to protect the rights of individuals, respectively, to emphasise on the positive consequences of belonging to a particular community.

He also refers to Article 15(1) and (2) and Article 16(1) and (2), of the Indian Constitution which again recognises individuals as members of a particular group or cast. Also, Article 15(3) to (6) and 16(3) to (6) which gives privileges to citizens as members of a particular group. This way, he recognises how on one hand, we want to remove the shackles of caste system that bind the society while also promoting equity using those same rights.


As a consequence,reducing an individual’s personal identity down to their membership of a particular marginalised group has the effect of reducing her identity to her caste.

Justice Chandrachud mentions an incident which took place while the 93rd amendment of the Constitution which provided for reservations for OBCs, SCs and STs was brought.During one of the debates held in the Parliament, Prof Deshpande mentioned, if there was a space ship which took Indians to moon, 9 of them would be OBCs, 6 SCs, 3 STs and 2 astronauts. This showed that even though, there was a talk in the parliament to improve the status of the backward classes, they were still only identified by their cast and not by their position that they held in the society.

But steps are taken by the Judiciary to right this wrong. In B. K. Pavitra v. Union of India case, court broadly defined “merit” by taking into account the privileges of the upper caste and the oppression faced by the lower caste. Thus, creating a holistic approach to the term “merit”.


When individuals belong to different marginalised group,they often have to choose one identity which is responsible for their marginalisation the most. This not only just reduces their identity to that group, but also fails to recognise their position in the society as a member belonging to more than 1 marginalised group.

Feminist scholar Kimberle Crenshaw introduced the concept of "intersectionality", which acknowledges the unique location of a particular combination of marginalised section, to counteract this very problem.


Although the constitution rights have not always proved to be fruitful, it is through the belief of the members of the marginalised sections in these rights that, these very rights have empowered them to always strive for their rights.

To further provide protective rights to the members of the marginalised community as well as to confer their personhood, honourable Justice suggests to celebrate their identity, recognise their individual and group identities and create a holistic environment which will allow them to feel safe and at par with the privileged section of the society.

To encourage the Dalits to claim their personhood, the members of the upper caste have to look beyond the shackles of caste and give due respect to them.

Most importantly, Justice Chandrachud encourages us to abide by the Constitution and places the responsibility on each one of us to uphold the ideas behind our Constitution, because even Dr. Ambedkar said, “The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. It is, therefore, futile to pass any judgement upon the Constitution without reference to the part which the people and their parties are likely to play.”

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