BLASPHEMY LAW IN INDIA
A commonly accepted definition of blasphemy is the irreverence toward something which is considered sacred like a deity or something which is considered inviolable. A law prohibiting blasphemy is called a blasphemy law. Blasphemy offence originated in Christian Theocracy. However, it has now mainly become a problem of Islamic countries. Recently, the whole of Pakistan erupted in massive protests after Asia Bibi was acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. In another place called Langfang, a Chinese metropolis, Christmas decoration and any kind of celebrations of such sort was banned across the city.
IS THERE A BLASPHEMY LAW IN INDIA?
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 representation 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 team which may extend to three years or with fine, or with both”
However, in India, there is no such offence as blasphemy. There is a section in the Indian Penal Code, Section 295A, which talks about something related to blasphemy. The word in itself is not present under this section but one can infer it. Therefore, many people mistake it for a blasphemy law even though such kind of an offence is not present in India.
Under Section 295A, intention plays the key role to determine liability of that person. The concept of blasphemy includes three identities that should not be talked ill about. They are the God, the Prophet and the Book.
In case of Ramji Lal Modi v. State of U.P., the Supreme Court held that the Section 295A does not penalize every act of insult to or attempt to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a class of citizens but it penalizes only those acts of insults to or those varieties of attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a class of citizens, which are perpetrated with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of that class.
ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS OF SECTION 395A
To make a case of Section 295A, there are some essential ingredients that need to be fulfilled. They are:
- The Act in itself should be done. It may be in the form of words, signs or visual representations or otherwise.
- It should be done with malice, that is, the intention should be malicious.
- It should outrage the religious feelings.
- The person whose feelings get outraged can be of any class of citizens of India.
- And lastly, even if someone attempts to insult someone’s religion or their religious feelings (with malice), he/she shall be held accountable.
BLASPHEMY CASES IN OTHER COUNTRIES
There are some cases witnessed in other countries that saw Indians charged with blasphemy. For example, Shankar Ponnam was arrested at a farm near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on charges of blasphemy. He had posted a photo shopped image of the Hindu Deity Shiva sitting at the top of the Kaaba on social media. Kabba is considered one of the holiest sites in Islam located in the center of al-Masjid-al-Haram or the Grand Mosque in Mecca. His act hurt the sentiments of many Muslims. Some even retaliated by posting a video of him getting beaten up by people. He was reportedly sentenced to four months in prison and a fine of 5000 Saudi Riyals was also charged.
Asia Bibi was sentenced to death penalty and a fine of roughly 1000 dollars after being accused of Blasphemy in Pakistan. She had allegedly spoken ill of Prophet Muhammad. She has been now acquitted after spending eight years in prison on death row.
BLASPHEMY CASES IN INDIA
In the case of Ram Ji Lal Modi v. State of U.P., the constitutionality of the Section 295A was questioned. The Supreme Court held that not every insult to religion is covered under this Section but only those insults that were said with malice to wreak havoc on public order. However, the Supreme Court upheld the restriction in this case on freedom of speech and expression to maintain public order.
Later on in Sri Baragur Ramachandrappa v. State of Karnataka, the court held that any unwarranted or malicious criticism or interference in faith of others cannot be accepted. However, what is warranted and what is unwarranted was not specified.
SHOULD THERE BE SECTION 295A?
It is no doubt that Section 295A is necessary to ensure that threats to religious harmony are controlled. This is because the constitutional scheme of ideals of fraternity require that there should be promotion of religious harmony. No one should hurt someone’s religious sentiments but everyone should be able to practice their own religion given they don’t hurt anyone else. As it was held in St. Xavier’s College v. State of Gujarat, secularism is not anti-God or pro-God, it treats alike the devout, the agnostic and the atheist.
Though there are some positive points related to the said section but there is criticism to it too. For example, some argue that the fundamental right of speech and expression is getting violated through the practice of this section. As criticizing and questioning are forms of expressions and religious sections often view inquiry and criticism from others as an insult to their religion, one’s right to free speech and expression gets restricted here. The act of inquiring about someone’s religions sometimes gets considered as blasphemous. Another criticism is vigilantism. More often than never people get beaten up for their supposedly blasphemous views which are merely different views from the majority of religious communities. Lastly, in various countries as mentioned earlier, the punishment for blasphemy is very stringent ranging from life imprisonment to death penalty.
Ramji Lal Modi v. State of U.P, A.I.R. 1957 SC 620.
Sri Baragur Ramachandrappa and Ors. v. State of Karnataka and Ors,, Crim Appeal 1228 of 1998.
St. Xavier’s College v. State of Gujarat, A.I.R. 1974 SC 1389.
Author: Saumya Shreya,
National Law University and Judicial Academy, Assam (First Year)