The slight appearance of objects or living beings having significance in our religion should not hurt religious sentiments as they are not trademarks of any community.
“THE more devoted a person in his religious belief, the greater should be his spirit of tolerance.”
The recent controversy arising from the song “Besharam Rang” of the upcoming Bollywood movie ‘Pathaan’ has certainly posed before us the need to determine the test to identify innocent expression, that is, an expression which is falsely portrayed to have hurt religious sentiments, and wrongful expression, that is, an expression which truly hurt religious sentiments.
Apparently, in Indian politics, religion has now become an important tool which has a great potential to influence the ordinary citizens in one’s favour. Sometimes, in proving allegiance towards religion, art and artists become victims. Consequently, the hard labour and money invested in that art get wasted despite the innocence of the creators. Well, artists and critics have freedom of speech and expression, and ordinary people have religious sentiments, all required to be protected at the same time.
Thus, when the allegations are raised against any art, we, as an audience, owe a duty to examine whether the allegations are actually being made due to a slur on religion or in those allegations, religion is being used as a tool for achieving some political motives. The question we must ask is whether religious sentiments are actually being hurt or they are just being portrayed to us as being hurt. Let’s see when the sentiments are hurt and when they are portrayed as being hurt.
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Test to be adopted to check if any speech attacks religion
Religious sentiments are hurt when the impugned speech directly or indirectly attacks the religion, and the speech is made intentionally by the speaker. The speech must be examined in totality with other parts of the speech, and the context of that impugned speech must be with respect to the religion only. It must be clear that the speech was made only to harm religious beliefs. Then only religious sentiments are hurt in the true sense.
Religious sentiments, in true sense, would be hurt when their significance is being distorted or being portrayed in some other sense, causing deviation from their true meaning. Thus, religious sentiments cannot and should not be hurt when the objects or living beings having significance in any religion are not used in the art for distorting their significance.
In the present controversy, allegations have been raised that by juxtaposing the saffron colour with “Besharam Rang” (“indecent colour”), the film has disrespected Hinduism. We have to understand that religion, especially Hinduism, is broad and nearly every object and living being on this planet has some significance in religion. These objects may include names, clothes and their colour, utensils, ornaments, jewellery, and so on, and living beings may include animals like cows, monkeys, snakes and so on.
Now, it is inevitable that when any art, including movies or paintings portrays some idea, these objects or living beings might be used innocently without having any connection with the religion. Religious sentiments, in true sense, would be hurt when their significance is being distorted or being portrayed in some other sense, causing deviation from their true meaning. Thus, religious sentiments cannot and should not be hurt when the objects or living beings having significance in any religion are not used in the art for distorting their significance.
In this recent controversy, it appears that the colour saffron is being used in the song for attraction and not to signify anything. The English subtitles available on Youtube indicate clearly that the ‘Beshram Rang’ is being used to signify the true colours of the character of the lead actor. Neither the colour nor the clothes appearing in the song signify anything related to Hinduism. Nowhere in the song, has the significance of the colour saffron appeared to be distorted. This should be called innocent expression.
Relevant legal provisions
We are guided by Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which makes the act of hurting religious sentiments an offence. Courts have held the presence of malicious intention as the necessary ingredient for attracting liability under section 295A. It is pertinent to note that this ingredient is made necessary even when the speech in question has attacked the religion. However, in recent days, allegations are being raised against an expression even when that expression is not made towards the religion. This certainly infringes the right to freedom of speech and expression of artists, guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
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In fact, these allegations produce a chilling effect on the freedom of expression of artists. The slight appearance of objects or living beings having significance in our religion should not hurt religious sentiments as they are not trademarks of any community. It is time that we start protecting innocent expressions from politically motivated allegations by applying the said test, that is, whether the usage, viewed in the totality of circumstances, is intentionally causing any distortion to the significance of that object or living being.