As one of the historic months in India’s legislative history comes to a close, my friend Salik Ahmad at Outlook India published an article titled ‘What’s Wrong With Our Rights’. The comprehensive and well-researched piece detailed some of the archaic and borderline medieval laws that still exist in our Penal Code. One particular clause that I sorely missed being mentioned in Ahmad’s article was the IPC 295A, India’s own version of blasphemy law – the one that protects under the camouflage of “hurt sentiments”, the omnipotent from criticism that comes from the pens, paint brushes, and mouths of us mortals, the citizens.
Section 295A of the IPC reads:
“Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class, 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 4 years, or with fine, or with both.”
From AMU to Odisha, citizens targeted
As conveniently vague, and legally cognisable and non-bailable as it is, the IPC 295 A has been very much in practice, mostly to harass and persecute voices of criticism, reform, reason, and rationality; yours truly being one among those who have been at the receiving end of this attack on free expression. On June 9, 2018, an FIR was filed by certain students and ex-students of the Aligarh Muslim University against me and four other people for alleged “hate speech” – bizarrely enough, for a caption that I did not write, of a picture that I did not post, but was merely tagged in the said post on social media. What followed was harassment, and a series of threats and abuses against me and my family to the extent that I was forced to leave my hometown of Aligarh and seek refuge in other cities across the country. As recently as September 20, 2018, defence analyst and columnist Abhijit Iyer was arrested for his alleged “derogatory remarks” about the Sun Temple at Konark. He was released on a bail of Rs one lakh and is likely to face prosecution and an extended legal battle lies ahead of him.
‘Section 295AA’: Punjab’s legislative overreach
To add insult to injury at a time when the country is moving towards liberalisation of sexuality, is debating medieval practices of triple talaq, is coming out to address grave issues like female genital mutilation and inheritance rights for women – thereby taking a step, in the meta-narrative, to rid the world’s largest democracy of the laws that still plague it – Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s government in Punjab took the state decades, if not centuries, back into the past by adding another clause to an already oppressive and unconstitutional Penal Code. IPC 295 AA, as it is called in Punjab, now proposes to punish “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Geeta, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people” with imprisonment for life.
The paradox of how the holy books, especially the monotheistic ones, can themselves be argued to be blasphemous towards each other aside, the amendment is one of the most vicious and savage attack on the right to freedom of speech and expression as embodied in Article 19 of the Constitution. It puts the Indian citizen at the risk of being imprisoned for life for speech and expression that the law has, in a rather irresponsible and wicked fashion, left too vague to be put into any bracket whatsoever. With the existence of Section 153A of the IPC that, at least in theory, prevents religion and other attributes of communal identity from being used to create disturbance and disharmony in the society, the frequency with which the religious lobbies use Section 295A and insist on the importance of its existence is representative of their intentions to attack free speech and silence criticism – in effect, to force respect, and not just tolerance, for anything and everything that is done under the garb of religion.
The insecurity of the religious lobby over the protection of its “god/god-like figure” from “slander and abuse” has shown itself, quite glaringly, throughout history.
Blasphemy through the ages
From the persecution that thinkers like Ibn-e-Rushd, Ibn Al Rawandi, and Galileo faced at the hands of the theocratic forces of the time, to the fatwa asking for the assassination of Salman Rushdie following the publication of Satanic Verses in 1988, the brutal killing of Mashal Khan and Farook in 2017 in Pakistan, the murder of numerous bloggers in Bangladesh, the death sentences that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia executes to atheists and freethinkers, the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the riots that happened over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, the murder of Theo Van Gogh, the exile of the likes of Sanal Edamarku and M F Husain, the murder of Narendra Dhabolkar and M M Kalburgi, the constant threat of violence under which many rationalists and artists live, and the numerous cases filed under the IPC 295A in India – the ancient, medieval, and the modern history is dotted with instances of the groups lobbied and funded under the banner of god attacking free speech and expression through force or through legislation. God himself, however, has not shown much interest in these affairs, and has remained suspiciously absent a hundred percent of the time.
It is not just a matter of introspection, but one of shame that the country that aims to be the a “superpower by 2020”, the world’s largest democracy, and now one of the places in the world that has made a leap towards embracing varying notions of sexuality, still contains and enacts blasphemy laws in its Penal Code, while it should be upholding the constitutional values of free speech and expression.
It is a crying shame that the Indian State prosecutes critical speech and that some number of its most celebrated thinkers and artists have to seek political asylum in other countries – seeking refuge not from thugs and terrorists, but from the State itself.
It is shameful that a society of gives to itself, laws and guidelines that protect the “dignity and respect” of its omnipotent God, but not always the same of its citizens, especially the vulnerable among the peoples. If, strictly for the sake of argument, we assume that there is a God, who is all powerful and all knowing, and there is a “hereafter”, the argument that this God needs a set of written rules to avoid getting his feelings hurt is preposterous. If anything, a devout religious person must take offence to the mere existence of blasphemy laws because they put the laws made by humans above the infinite power and knowledge of (their) God. It is fallacious to argue that the “Creation” needs to create laws to protect the sensitive feelings of its “Creator”.
It is hypocritical, insecure, shameful, and downright bizarre on the part of the faithful to force respect of the apparent “Creator” on those who refuse to accept its existence on account of their own reason and rationale. It is even more ludicrous, and one can argue, and unconstitutional that a democratic secular republic and a pluralistic intellectual society like India does so.
In order to blaspheme, one has to accept that there exists something or someone to blaspheme against. How does the Indian law protect those who refuse to accept the premise?