ue to the political scenario prevailing in India, minorities are safe and have equal voices as the majority does. Here, everyone is punishable under Blasphemy law. If we look into history of India in 1953, 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 the caste system of Hinduism, made a speech announcing his intention to do this before breaking the idol. Veerabadran Chettiar, an offended Hindu, filed a case against him 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 of either description for a term 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 or with fine or both. 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 that the idol was the private property of those who broke it.
The matter went to High Court. The judge said that the broken idol 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. The case was later referred to the Supreme Court. On August 25, 1958, Justice BP Sinha said that 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, Holy 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 were 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, for costs of Rs1,200 after he was sued for getting his books released. He had written texts praising Yazid and Muawiya saying that they had a place in heaven according to Hanafi consensus. The state then seized his books. The judges cited Justice Sinha’s observation in a ruling against him. There are not many blasphemy cases reported in India. In my years as a Sessions court reporter in the 1990s and most of the case studies in legal volumes refer to events that happened 50 years or more ago. I would attribute this to a generally high tolerance in the population for the other’s faith, and a pragmatic and alert police force and judiciary. What is different in Pakistan?
Incidentally, Naicker, the idol-smasher was also the founder of the Dravidian movement that produced both of Tamil Nadu’s main political parties, DMK (Karunanidhi) and AIADMK (Jayalalitha). Naicker’s successors converted an anti-Brahmin movement into a powerful political force that now does not seek to offend. The AIADMK chief Jayalalitha was a Brahmin and both parties are inclusive. Naicker’s act is all but forgotten today and seen as political not religious. We see many political party leaders and workers making derogatory comments about each other’s religious faiths but they just render an apology after outrage by people and get scot free. Whereas a common man or a citizen of this nation gets prosecuted under judicial provision. Criminalising criticism of religion is also difficult to reconcile with guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of religion contained in such widely embraced documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Fundamental Rights. It also has been demonstrated that blasphemy laws are more likely to be enforced against religious minorities than adherents of a majority faith. Equally disturbing, blasphemy laws are being repackaged as prohibitions on “hate speech.” Over the years there has been a campaign led by some Muslim nations to have the international community condemn “defamation of religion.” This rhetorical sleight of hand allows defenders of blasphemy laws to portray them as protections for persecuted believers rather than the enforcement of a theological orthodoxy.
Thankfully, India does not have a blasphemy law which punishes an individual for criticising the concept of GOD or religious beliefs and no individual can be punished for leaving his/her religion or converting to another religion. Apostasy is not punishable in any way, but can be used as a ground for divorce (does not automatically lead to). Missionaries and Dawah groups are having a heyday in India. And we have communist parties too. Hinduism is India’s dominant religion Being polytheistic and pantheistic does not have the concept of blasphemy and laws pertaining to religion and blasphemy are absent in the Indian constitution. While India has no laws that specifically prohibit blasphemy, Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code has been used as a blasphemy law. There have been widespread calls in India to repeal this regressive British era code. India is a multiracial, multilingual, multi religious country, where people of all hue and colour are living together in peace. This uniqueness, harmony, unity in diversity is our well-acknowledged characteristics. We have to preserve it.
We have already witnessed our great country being mercilessly and quite meaninglessly divided on the name of religion and anyhow survived the holocaust caused by religious differences and hatred. We can’t risk large scale dissension on religious lines among any section of the society by any way intruding, introducing, imposing, influencing their customs, beliefs, practices or hurting their sentiments. Majority has to accommodate, compromise, sacrifice sometimes for minority. Incidentally, minority is no longer a minority going by its growth and size. It constitutionally enjoys equal footing and has a major say in policy matters with wholesome participation and contribution in all spheres of lives. Religion is still a major influence though its utility, credibility and relevance are often questioned. However, it is something eternal and personal. In our democracy, everyone has the freedom of belief and no one should try to criticise or interfere into it. We all talk about universal religion but the time is not ripe yet. Even small things are sometimes grossly highlighted and misinterpreted by certain elements and they unnecessarily become the cause of communal tensions and violence. A system works on certain permissions and prohibitions. The law in its place serves its purpose at present.
(With Inputs from various agencies)
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