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By India's blasphemy laws are under scrutiny. Hemchhaya De wonders if a progressive, secular democracy needs to punish people for 'blasphemy'
  • Published 5.12.12

Pakistan has been at the receiving end of international outrage over its blasphemy laws that can fetch the death sentence. The latest victim was a Christian teenager who was booked under the law, apparently at the behest of an Islamic cleric, on charges of the “desecration of Quran”.

But if you thought Indians can take the high moral ground in this matter, think again. For though few are aware of it, this country too has blasphemy laws that can throw an alleged offender into jail.

Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code says, “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… which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”

When Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan of Palghar, Maharashtra, were arrested last month for criticising the total shutdown of Mumbai for Bal Thackeray’s death on Facebook (Srinivasan merely clicked “like”), Section 295A was one of the charges they were slapped with. Although it was dropped soon after — the equally egregious Section 66A of the Information Technology Act was what they were finally booked under — the entire episode shows the thoughtlessness with which the “blasphemy” law may be applied against individuals.

Earlier this year, rationalist Sanal Edamaruku fled the country and sought exile in Finland because he faces arrest in India under Section 295A. His crime? He proved that a statue of Jesus Christ at a Mumbai church that was found to be “weeping” was no miracle. The water trickling down it was actually due to faulty plumbing, he showed.

Several Catholic organisations in Mumbai retaliated by lodging an FIR against Edamaruku. He was charged under Section 295A of the IPC and would have faced arrest had he not fled the country.

In an interview to The Guardian, UK, Edamaruku, who’s being backed by such eminent rationalists as Richard Dawkins, said, “It is an absurd law (Section 295A) but also extremely dangerous because it gives fanatics, whether they are Hindus, Catholics or Muslims, a licence to be offended. It also allows people who are in dispute with you to make up false accusations of blasphemy.”

The case against Edamaruku has once again brought into sharp focus the debate on whether India needs a law of this kind. Section 295A is, after all, a relic of the country’s colonial past as it was passed in the 1860s. Yet it has been invoked time and again in recent times — against southern actress Jaimala for entering the men-only Sabarimala temple, against Taslima Nasrin for her controversial book Dwikhandito, and others.

Activists and legal experts insist that the law should be done away with. They argue that it is violative of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression and Article 25 that speaks of the fundamental right to freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion. They also refer to Article 51A(h) which seeks “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.

“Such blasphemy laws as Section 295A of the IPC originated in Europe when Christianity was the only important religion. In colonial times, these were imposed on the colonised,” says G. Vijayam, a rationalist and executive director of Atheist Centre in Andhra Pradesh. “Even after independence, we continue to follow the colonial law which certainly needs to be scrapped in a democratic, secular country such as ours.”

But Section 295A of the IPC is not the only law in India that penalises “blasphemy”. The Information Technology (intermediaries guidelines) Rules prohibit “users of computer resource” from uploading any information that “is harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, blasphemous, objectionable, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever.”

Clearly, both Section 295A and the provision under the IT Rules leave ample scope for misuse. “It is pertinent to note that neither the Information Technology Act, 2000, nor the Information Technology Rules, 2011, define the word ‘blasphemous’. As such, the interpretation of the term ‘blasphemy’ is left to subjective interpretation,” says Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court lawyer and an expert on IT laws. “I believe that the IT rules have been made only to harass and heckle people. The law needs to protect people’s rights, not create a reign of fear.”

Duggal adds that all such blasphemy laws are regressive. “All these archaic laws tend to be misused by select groups of people who try to control religious practices, thereby trampling upon an individual’s religious freedom. These laws are impossible to implement without fundamentally contradicting freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. Indeed, ‘blasphemy’ laws render all meaningful dialogue between religions, and between religious people and non-religious people, potentially liable to some inflated charge and prosecution,” he says.

But there are those who want the law to stay, but with few modifications. “We have called for amendments to Section 295A so that it doesn’t become all pervasive,” says Jospeh Dias, general secretary of the Catholic-Christian Social Forum (CSF) in Mumbai — the man who was “the first to file an FIR” against Edamaruku’s “miracle”-busting. “It should remain, but must be enforced under strict restrictions.” He feels that the law is vague on some counts and doesn’t have scope for discussion or “apologetic debate”. Incidentally, the CSF and other Catholic organisations have asked for an “apology” from Edamaruku.

For Dias, it’s a question of where to draw the line. “We believe in freedom of speech,” he says. “But Edamaruku’s is an extreme case. He incited anti-Catholic sentiments. So the law should be specific about what constitutes hate speech.”

Others would say that the very existence of a law like Section 295A of the IPC makes it easy for the religious orthodoxy to harass sceptics.

Clearly, the debate over India’s blasphemy laws will continue. And at a time when the Supreme Court is hearing a case to strike down Section 66A of the IT Act, it is not unlikely that it will soon be petitioned to examine another contentious law like Section 295A of the IPC.