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An offended nation: Should section 295A be scrapped?

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When Canada-based filmmaker Leena Manimekalai tweeted the poster of her new film titled ‘Kaali’, displaying goddess Kali smoking, with the pride flag in the background, all hell broke loose. Enraged Hindus claimed that their religious sentiments had been hurt, and demanded legal action against the incendiary post. 

The outrage was partially fueled by the recent controversy involving Nupur Sharma, an ex-BJP party representative who was suspended and prosecuted under Section 295A of the IPC for making certain objectionable remarks about Prophet Muhammad. Outraged Hindus pointed out that like Nupur Sharma, Leema Manimekalai deserved to be punished for hurting Hindu sentiments. Some claimed that there ought to be as much outrage over Leena Manimekalai’s actions, as the violence that was seen in Udaipur after what Nupur Sharma said.

Filmmaker Leena Manimekalai

However, a chunk of the Twitter community came out in support of Leena Manimekalai, saying that she should be allowed artistic liberty, and not be prosecuted. 

This isn’t the first time that the freedom of speech and expression has come into direct conflict with Section 295A, a provision of the IPC that prosecutes ‘deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.’ 

The primary problem with this provision is that it has not been clearly defined. For instance, there is little clarity regarding what can be considered offensive and hurtful to religious sentiments and beliefs. Is quoting a religious text, as in the case of Nupur Sharma, offensive? Or can reinterpretations of religious texts and mythology in artistic forms or otherwise be deemed as hurtful to religious sentiments? More importantly, how can it be determined whether the accused actually intended to hurt religious beliefs and incite violence, or it was simply an honest mistake? 

Section 295A has been misused time and again, not unlike Section 124A of IPC i.e. the infamous Sedition Act, to oppress varying political and artistic voices, suppress dissent against regressive religious practices, and curb freedom of speech and thought in the country. Authors like Salman Rushdie, filmmakers like Ali Abbas Zafar, scholars, etc. have been prosecuted and oppressed for their words that were deemed ‘offensive’, often without a solid definition of what constitutes offence. 

In this situation, a chunk of public opinion has been advocating the scrapping of Section 295A, claiming that it violates the Indian citizen’s freedom of speech and expression. This opinion highlights the problems that arise with an ‘offence culture’, where religious extremists, media houses, and the 280 characters of Twitter stir up outrage in the hearts of people, rallying them up and profiting off their sentiments, monetarily or otherwise. This is especially pronounced when it comes to faith, for anything that even touches religion is deemed ‘offensive’ and torched. Such a culture efficiently directs public discourse towards irrelevant issues, creating an economy that thrives off of stirring communal tension and FIRs, whilst distracting the masses from other pressing issues such as the decline of the Indian currency, for instance. 

Twitter’s cult of ‘armchair activism’

While the scrapping of Section 295A seems reasonable, given the legacy of its blatant misuse and the cloud of ambiguity hovering over it, such an act may have other consequences, that are being overlooked. For one thing, the scrapping of this provision may cause extremist groups to conclude that it’s up to them now to ‘protect’ their religion and may incite them to communal violence in a bid to ‘take the law into their own hands.’ This may worsen communal tensions, and spiral into a re-run of 2002. 

In this situation, perhaps the wisest thing to do would be to cut down the ambiguity from Section 295A and explicitly define what will be liable for prosecution. For instance, simply ‘hurting religious sentiments cannot be grounds for such severe legal action. If this were the case then anything from a call for reform of archaic religious traditions, or benign and artistic re-interpretations of mythology to mocking and maligning deities could be interpreted as such. After all, offence is often quite subjective, varying from individual to individual, and cannot be objectively defined or measured. 

Besides, religions all over the world have criticized and ‘offended’ non-believers by referring to them as ‘infidels, pagans, mleccha, kafirs, etc.’ By that logic, shouldn’t advocates of such derogation directed towards non-believers, atheists, and agnostics be prosecuted for offending them and violating the rights granted to them by Article 25 of the IPC, i.e. the freedom to practice, propagate, profess and religion or faith, and even abstain from doing so? After all, why should non-believers be deprived of this right and treated like second-class citizens? 

One way to define this section of the IPC could be to only allow the prosecution of only those who incite violence. Naturally, it might be difficult to distinguish whether the violence that happens in response to religious statements can be attributed to the person who makes these statements, or is a consequence of political incitement and polarization of extremist groups. In Nupur Sharma’s case, the blame for the riots and the death of the tailor in Udaipur was piled upon her by the Supreme Court, rather unreasonably, in my opinion. It appeared to be simply an attempt to appease outraged Muslim groups, and conduct damage control. 

Perhaps a distinction can be made between statements that very visibly call for violence and statements that simply express displeasure with religious groups and traditions. The bigger question of whether the words of a single person can be single-handedly blamed for inciting an entire community to violence, or whether the community deserves to be blamed for taking up arms at the slightest provocation is certainly something that can be pondered upon. 

All we can do till then is await the verdict of the 280 characters that will determine the fate of our nation, whilst being on the lookout for the next episode of Kaun Banega Twitterati

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