Section 295A, Indian Penal Code: Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.— Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.
An inherited tyranny
Section 295A of the IPC pertains to insulting religions and religious beliefs. Made by our colonial masters to divide and subjugate their vassals, like many other provisions of the archaic laws made by them, this section too has been carried over into our laws and is being used now mainly to persecute and hound people who may have points of view contrary to those of the powers that be. The rationalist movement and other progressive forces have been mostly at the receiving end of persecutions under this, but the others have been no exception. The word ‘persecution’ has been deliberately used here as most of the cases booked under this section have resulted in acquittals of the accused and all they have had as punishment is the period of the ‘due process of law’ which can take several years to couple of decades to complete.
A miracle gone soggy
The most recent case receiving media coverage in this issue is the attempt to prosecute a rationalist from Delhi, Sanal Edamaruku. He has been quite active on the TV channels denouncing superstitions and god men on them and has been a regular feature on many of them. The most recent controversy in which he has been involved is the one of a cement crucifix of Jesus Christ in Bandra, Mumbai dripping water from its feet. There were hot discussions of some TV channels about the veracity of this so called miracle and there was a heated exchange of words between him and others leading to complaints against him under the above-mentioned Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code for “deliberate and malicious acts leading to outrage religious feelings of any class” – here read as the Roman Catholic community. Again, the act does not pertain to the miracle of the dripping cross but other words used in the course of the discussions which have outraged the religious feelings of a group of people known as the Organisation of Concerned Catholics (OCC) and the Catholic Secular Forum (CSF) who had lodged complaints against Sanal at the Juhu and Andheri police stations. It was said that Sanal’s contentions that the so called ‘miracle’ was promoted by the church to fleece gullible people and the prefix used for the head of the Roman Catholic Church by calling him Mr. Pope had angered these Catholics who chose to file this complaint. It was in the newspapers that the Mumbai police have summoned Mr. Edamaruku for questioning on this complaint. A committee to defend him under the leadership of the eminent Supreme court lawyer Mr. N.D. Pancholi has been formed and funds are being collected from all over the world for his defence.
Fatwas on literary translation
It is not the first time that this section is being used or that Sanal Edamaruku is the first one to be hauled up under this. A couple of years back one Krantikar from Andhra Pradesh had been hauled up under the same sections and had been in prison for quite some time as he had refused to apply for bail. His crime – he had translated some write ups of Taslima Nasreen which had been published more than decade back and were available to the world at large on the web into Telugu and had published that in book form, which had again angered the local fundamentalist Muslims who were after his blood. The ruling Congress party in the state had brought all these sections upon him to please their so called ‘minority vote bank’! The way it was done it was pretty obvious that the case would be thrown out by the court but the ‘persecution’ part of it was more important for the government!
Recipe for mass starvation?
Just at the time of the Sanal case hitting the headlines a student of Hyderabad, Kartik had been arrested on the same grounds for reacting that there is no god to someone who had greeted him on Hanuman Jayanthi day. He had been arrested and was in police custody for having expressed his convictions and exercising his constitutional right! Again, the same law was used by a right wing student organisation to target a member of a rival organization. The saffron gang are experts in using this law to harass those who do not see eye to eye with them. In fact, they used it to file complaints against those who organised and participated in a ‘beef festival’ on the campus of Osmania University recently. Though one’s dietary habits are one’s personal business, one mans food can be another one’s religious sentiment! So, people could file complaints under section 295A for eating beef (Hindu religious sentiments), pork (Muslim religious sentiments), any non vegetarian-food (Jain religious sentiments) and so on ad infinitum! It could also be argued that even the menus of restaurants are publications which are deliberately and maliciously composed to hurt them and so on.
An idea whose time is past
Like many of the archaic laws made by our colonial masters have been relegated to the dust bin in their country, this law too deserves the same fate. In fact it has been advised by them that we should do so! Yet, we choose to have these which are an affront to the very concept of human rights. If a person has the right to propagate one’s religion we should also have the right to question the same. All the religions thrive by striking the fear of the unknown into the minds of people and by spreading superstitious beliefs and questioning any of them would be construed as hurting the religious sentiments and cases filed under section 295A! If those who do so are members of a movement like ours then it could be added that the intent was ‘malicious and deliberate’!
All in the family
I can recall some instances from the past when we have been threatened with this. About a decade ago, I had made a public statement about cows urine being the urine of animal like any other- for instance a dog! At that time a campaign was started by the peddlers of the concoctions containing ‘ urine that it was an attack on the religious sentiments and I should be booked under this section. A big debate went on for weeks and finally a legal luminary concluded it by saying that though I deserved to be punished under that it could not be done as I was born in a Hindu family! If I were to be born in a family professing some other religion then I could have been prosecuted! He also added that criticism and reform was a salient feature of Hinduism! So, the whole controversy died a natural death. We have been threatened with the same when we questioned faith healers of Christianity- the excuse was that they were just conducting prayer meetings! The same was threatened when we exposed one Aslam Baba who was supposedly conducting surgical operations with tailors scissors! A couple of years ago when we had tried to investigate Mary’s flex prints shedding tears we had to struggle very hard to keep out any such allegations of ‘hurting religious sentiments’ !
Does this law have a role in our society? Well let us take a look at Article 51A of the Constitution of India which deals with the duties of the citizen. It states that it is a “fundamental duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. With a constitution which states this and with a section of the IPC which is contrary, it is the article of the constitution which should prevail.
This has been also stated in the Hulikal Nataraj vs Govt of Karnataka judgment of the Karnataka High Court. In this case, a case was filed against him for making a statement at a placed called Madikeri in Kodagu district of Karnataka. He had stated in a public lecture that the so called miracle at Sabarimala at the Aiyappa temple area was man-made. It was about a flame called as Makara vilakku from a hill called as Ponnambala Medu which was opposite the temple.The locals who wanted to hound him and harass him had filed a complaint with the local police station and the station house officer had straightaway filed an FIR and a charge sheet and tried to arrest Nataraj who had gone to the High Court for quashing the case. After a couple of years the judgment came as an indictment of the whole system. In fact the judge called the Home secretary to the court and also withheld the increment of the Sub Inspector who had attempted to arrest Nataraj.
A question for the faithful
A couple of years ago when we had tried to investigate the phenomenon of flex prints of Mary shedding ‘tears’ at the church in Aluva, Kerala there were attempts to convert that too as clash between various sections and to convert it into a outraging religious sentiments issue as in the case of Sanal mentioned above. But, due caution on our part in that case, prevented any adverse outcome.
Laws like Section 295A have no place in a civilized society and need to be consigned with many of such to the trash bins of history. Finally after mulling over the legal issues and the secular aspects of the law, a philosophical question needs to be addressed – why does an omnipotent deity need the services of a mundane law made by puny human beings to set right alleged infractions of divine laws made by a higher force? This is for the religious whose feelings are ‘offended’ to answer!