No religion can stop its portrayal, says SC

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday said no one can stop people from portraying their religious beliefs through writings, paintings or movies, refusing to vacate an April 10 directive for unhindered exhibition of a film based on Guru Nanak's life and teachings.

"It's ( Nanak Shah Fakir) just portraying the life of the Guru. No religion can say, 'You can't write or portray our religion'," the bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud said.

"We cannot enforce a rule that no one may write a book on a religion or make a painting on religion. These are secular matters. You can only say you can't denigrate," the bench added.

It declined to entertain at this point the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee's plea that the Sikh Guru's life and teachings could not be portrayed by any "human character".

The SGPC is responsible for managing gurdwaras and Sikh places of worship.

Senior advocate P.S. Patwalia, who appeared for the SGPC, had contended that the religious body was entitled to the protection of Article 26 of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion.

But the apex court felt that such rights could not override the fundamental rights of free speech guaranteed under Article 19.

"The film has won national acclaim.... It has got a national award. The film is meant to venerate the Guru and create awareness among the people. We don't want to intervene. Better watch the movie. We will hear both of you," Justice Misra told Patwalia.

On April 10, the court had directed the Centre and all states and Union territories to ensure the unhindered screening of the movie that was released on April 13.

The directive had come on a plea moved by the producer, Harinder S. Sikka, who said the SGPC had banned the film's release even after the censor board had cleared it on March 28.

Patwalia told the court the producer had concealed the fact that two SGPC resolutions - in 2003 and 2015 - had banned the portrayal of any of the Sikh Gurus as, according to the holy Guru Granth Sahib, "no human being" could portray Sikh Gurus.

"These are matters which travel beyond religion.... There is a venerable projection of the Guru in the language of the celluloid," the Chief Justice said.

The court, however, said the SGPC could always suggest modifications of any particular scene. "In this petition, we shall not deliberate on the essential practices of a religion as the film in question is only spreading awareness about the philosophy of Guru Nanak.... We can understand if it is denigrating someone," Justice Misra said.

Patwalia said no film had so far been made anywhere in the world on Sikh Gurus except for an animated version titled Chaar Sahibzaade.

Justice Misra, who spotted veteran lawyer Ram Jethmalani in the lawyers' row, sought his opinion. The senior counsel said no religious injunction could override a person's legal rights, effectively disagreeing with the SGPC's plea, although he was not appearing for any of the parties in the case.

Jethmalani had last year announced his intention to quit legal practice, though he keeps visiting the Supreme Court occasionally to interact with members of the Bar.

Senior advocate R.S. Suri, who appeared for Sikka, said the film was running to packed houses in Malaysia, Hong Kong and several African countries.

He said the producer had no issues with the SGPC as he was still willing to sit across the table and remove objectionable scenes, if there were any. Suri also said the film taught unity of all religions.

Justice Misra then suggested to Patwalia that the SGPC view a special screening of the movie and suggest modifications.

The bench posted the matter for further hearing to May 7.


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