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India: On matters of god and faith, our skin is thinner than it used to be

by Aakar Patel, 3 December 2018

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The Times of India, December 2, 2018

Journalist Abhijit Iyer-Mitra has been in jail since October 23 for making sarcastic comments about the Sun temple and Jagannath Puri in Odisha. It is absurd that the government should have arrested him for making a sarcastic comment, and all of us should be offended by the fact that he remains in prison.

The other thing of concern is the Supreme Court’s observation that Iyer-Mitra was “inciting religious faith of the country. It isn’t a case for bail.” As also the chief justice’s remarkable observation that “if your life is in danger, then what better place to stay than jail?”

I wrote something years ago for a Pakistani newspaper about their blasphemy law, comparing it to our laws. What struck me was that India has regressed on the issue of freedom of speech in religion.

On May 27, 1953, the Tamil reformer EV Ramaswami Naicker smashed an idol of Lord Ganesha in public at the Town Hall maidan in Tiruchirapalli. Naicker, who was angered by Hinduism’s caste system, made a speech announcing his intention to do this before breaking the idol. Veerabadran Chettiar, an offended Hindu, filed a case against Naicker under two laws.

Section 295: “Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion, shall be punished with imprisonment… which may extend to two years.”

Section 295-A: “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…”

The Tiruchirapalli magistrate dismissed the petition. On the first charge, he said that simply because the mud figure resembled Lord Ganesha it cannot become an object held sacred. He accepted an offence was made out on the second charge (295-A), but that law required government sanction for the case to be registered, which had not come. He dismissed that also. The petitioner appealed. The sessions judge dismissed the appeal. He agreed with the magistrate, saying the idol was the private property of those who broke it.

The matter went to high court. The judge said the idol broken did not come within the scope of “any object held sacred by any class of persons”. An idol in a temple or one in a religious procession would, he clarified, but not any object resembling a deity. Even a toy in such a shape would otherwise qualify as being sacred. No offence was made out, the judge said, and dismissed the appeal. On to the Supreme Court. On August 25, 1958, Justice (later chief justice) B P Sinha said the high court was wrong to have imported meaning into the words “held sacred”. It was not necessary for the object to have been worshipped for it to be sacred. For instance, the Bible, the Quran and the Guru Granth Sahib were also objects held sacred. Sinha asked the judiciary to be circumspect in such matters and consider the feelings and religious emotions, irrespective of whether or not they share those beliefs, or whether they are rational or otherwise, in the opinion of the court.

However, after making these observations, Sinha then dismissed the appeal saying the matter had become “stale” since five years had passed. What his observations did was not to set a precedent, which would have happened had the case been dismissed on merit.

Two aspects are important here. First, a tolerance for offences against god shown by India’s lower judiciary. Second, and this is from Sinha, a reminder that such offences are likely to have consequences and, therefore, should not be encouraged. On April 20, 1960, the Allahabad High Court fined a man, Khalil Ahmad, Rs 1,200 after he sued for getting his books released. He had written texts praising Yazid (murderer of Imam Hussain at Karbala and therefore offensive to Shias) and his father the tyrant Muawiya, saying they had a place in heaven according to the Hanafi consensus. The state then seized his books. The judges cited Justice Sinha’s observation in ruling against him.
Today, it is not possible to conceive that our judiciary and our society would permit what happened in the time of Naicker (also called Periyar, founder of the Dravidian movement). Our skin is thinner than it was, and our citizenry and our judiciary much less relaxed about being offended.

P.S.

The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here for educational and non-commercial use