DOES INDIA NEED A BLASPHEMY LAW?

Introduction

“Blasphemy law” is a topic of not only headlines for news portals but a topic essential for mass discussion in a multicultural country like India. But the word ‘Blasphemy’ is not a recent discovery; it has existed in civilizations since the origin of religion. Blasphemy generally means any action or offence that is done with deliberation to outrage the religious feelings of any class by hurting its religious belief. Initially, it was regulated by the society itself under its self-rule process and then kings interfered to provide a fair justice system.

Section 295 and its history

 When the British arrived in the Indian sub-continent; initially they did not regulate the religious law and outlook but later after the recommendation of the first law commission in 1834 under the Indian Penal code, Lord Babington Macaulay introduced section 295 in the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860). Section 295 reads as follows:-

Section 295: “If any person intentionally damages, destroys or defiles any religious object deemed to be sacred by followers of any religion in India, including objects other than idols and books is punishable under this section. He shall be punished with imprisonment up to two years or fine, or both.”[1]

In cases like S. Veerabadran Chettiar vs E.V.Ramaswami Naicker & Ors[2] and Ram Prasad and Ors. Vs State, Through Jai Narain and Anr[3], the court have directed proper doctrine structure to regulate and protect religion and its belief in anticipation to prevail peace in the sub-continent. But the British government did not find section 295 of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860) to be fulfilling and provide overall protection to the state. This was a period when the state felt that it was its duty to protect the religious sentiments of people and to keep the country enact while it faces external threats.

Section 295A and beginning of blasphemy law

Initially, when the Indian Penal code, 1860 was drafted and enacted no section directly related to blasphemy law was included later by Act 25 of 1927, S. 2; section 295A of the Indian Penal Code was enacted. The section 295A reads as follows:-

Section 295A: “if a person maliciously by words spoken or written or signs or by visible representation insults or attempts to insult religious sentiments of any class of citizens of India then he may be punished under this section. A person can be imprisoned for 3 years or fined, or both if charged under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.”[4]

On several occasions section, 295A is also considered as blasphemy law of India, as India is a nation constructed on a belief of secularism and a multi-cultural outlook the law protects all religions and sentimental values of every religion are protected unlike countries like Pakistan and Iran that has structured the law to protect a particular religious belief. To provide section 295A proper tooth, it was structured as a cognizable offence whereby the police administration is not bound to obtain an arrest warrant from a judge before arresting the alleged perpetrator so that quick action can be taken and general peace prevailed in the society.[5] It was a significant step ahead to enact a proper blasphemy law in the Indian sub-continent but since then no particular step has been taken to introduce a separate law for blasphemy in India.

Does India need a blasphemy law?

Firstly, it is important to note that when we introduce a blasphemy law what is its effect and in what arenas would it work. When a blasphemy law comes into existence the basic structure of such kind of act would be to regulate freedom of speech that address any neck of the woods that insults religious sentiments and leads to violence between the believers of such kind of faith. This kind of operational validation might sound to be promising for prevailing peace and justice in society but its implementation might raise some serious questions on the subject matter.

When an Indian introduces a blasphemy law then primarily misuse of the law would start to rise as has happened with section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. Due to this various courts in the cases of Sudheer Rikhari Vs. The state of Goa[6] and Ramji Lal Modi Vs. The state of the U.P[7] had to draw proper boundaries so that misuse of section 295A can be restricted, however, the grievances with that section have been always a concern for the judiciary. When a blasphemy law would be introduced in a country like India where people of different religious beliefs resist, the chances of it being commanded for wrong purposes will be high. In many instances for promoting political vendetta and in pursuit of fulfilling personal disagreements such a law can be a double-edged sword endangering the basic principle of natural justice.

Constitution and Blasphemy Laws

The constitution of India under Article 19(1) (A) provides all citizens with the right to freedom of speech and expression[8], it had been done to protect the liberty of ideas and thoughts for every citizen to promote a healthy democratic state. When a blasphemy law is introduced the fundamental right is cut through its edges and individuals have to restrict their say to protect themselves from the penal actions. If in a democracy ideas and opinions cannot be discussed openly then a healthy democratic culture can be said to be under serious threat. In a mature democracy, the first sight is of discussing every idea and opinion with complete freedom and unbiased, and a blasphemy law shall be a hurdle in achieving the same.

Countries like Pakistan where blasphemy law is implemented see an incident when a brutal mob killed a Sri Lankan man accused of blasphemy[9], the country’s leaders condemned the violence but the hoi polloi response was that the death penalty is already enacted in the law and the public did what the law has prescribed. Later the judiciary did take action against the accused but such laws in the nation are a direct threat to the country’s peace and harmony.

Opinion and Conclusion

India has enjoyed communal harmony for various centuries and has higher religious tolerance than many other countries in the world. Introducing a blasphemy law does not solve any major religious issue but rather puts a restriction on the freedom of speech which is an essential element in the Indian democracy. The aim is to maintain peace and tranquillity in the country rather than just curtailing free speech, to do the same a law that prevents the thought process is not a valid or reasonable answer. In a mature democracy, we have to be prepared to develop a tolerant ideology giving space to all forms of ideology and filtering all the false news that alter the thought process of individuals or group in a negative term. The issue of hate speech can be dealt with proper filtration of news sources and facts and relevant punishment can be given to the individual but due that a few instances creating a toothed law like blasphemy would be a step taken to create more social problems rather than solving the current one. The diversity and diverse opinions are the strength of the Indian democracy and curtailing that would be like lying to ourselves. The need of the hour is not to pass any legislation in a step forward in forming blasphemy laws but to create a harmonious society where every religion has its say and tolerance to all opinions making India a stable State.

Author(s) Name: Devya Shah (Nirma University, Ahmedabad)

References:

[1] The Indian Penal Code,(45 of 1860), s.295

[2] S. Veerabadran Chettiar vs E.V.Ramaswami Naicker & Ors [1958 AIR 1032, 1959 SCR 1211]

[3] Ram Prasad and Ors. vs State, Through Jai Narain and Anr [AIR 1952 All 878]

[4] The Indian Penal Code, (45 of 1860), S.295A

[5] Goa Police, ‘What is cognizable offence?’(Goa Police, 17 June,2022)

<https://citizen.goapolice.gov.in/web/guest/cognizable-offence#:~:text=P.C.)%20Cognizable%20offence%20means%20an,are%20usually%20serious%20in%20nature.> accessed 04 July 2022.

[6] Sudheer Rikhari Vs. State of Goa [WPCR No.71 to 79 of 2020]

[7] Ramji Lal Modi Vs. State of U.P [1957 AIR 620 1957 SCR 860]

[8] Constitution of India, 1950, Article 19(1)(A)

[9] Abid Mehmood, ‘Ghastly murder of Lankan man in Sialkot shames nation.’(Dawn, 4 December 2021), <https://www.dawn.com/news/1661878/ghastly-murder-of-lankan-man-in-sialkot-shames-nation> accessed 4 July 2022.