Religion & The Freedom of Speech in India

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Indian Author Arrested on Charges of Hurting Religious Sentiments

On August 29, an Indian author, Yogesh Master, was arrested on the grounds of hurting religious sentiments after his novel, Dhundi, written in Kannada, was published. Yogesh is the first writer to be arrested under the provisions of articles 298 and 295A of the Indian Penal Code. The book was withdrawn from sale and circulation a mere 10 days after publication. Kannada television and local media are deemed to have played a role in the censorship—many local news channels allegedly quoted parts of his book out of context, and allowed right-wing politicians to deride it.

Author Yogesh Master is a former schoolteacher and theatre activist. His vocation has earned him the sobriquet “Master.” The novel is a commentary on the political and social changes brought by the Aryans in ancient India. The protagonist is Dhundi Ganapathi. Ganapathi is one of the most venerated gods in the Hindu pantheon. It is the story of how a forest dweller became a clan leader and eventually a god. Apparently, the principal objection Hindus have to the novel is the way in which many beloved gods and goddesses have been depicted—their relationships and characters. The novel is a materialist interpretation of the mythology of the Hindus.

Article 295A in the Indian Penal Code, 1860

Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. 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 of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

Section 298 in The Indian Penal Code, 1860

“Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings.-- Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

Books such as Mahachaitra by H.S. Shivaprakash, Dharmakarana by P.V. Narayana, Anu Deva Horaginavanu by Banjagere Jayaprakash and Gandhi Banda by H. Nagaveni have faced controversy in the past, and have been withdrawn from circulation and university syllabi.

The Offensive Articles, and Their Role in Censorship

There is no doubt that Salman Rushdie will never see the shores of his native land again. It is a great pity, exaggerated in no small amount by the fact that what prevents his return is not the mere threat of murder and violence. The Indian Penal Code, specifically, sections 298 and 295A, make it possible for his detractors to warrant his arrest. There is some irony in this, for the Indian Constitution is revered for its godless character and guaranteeing the freedom of speech as a ‘Fundamental Right’.

India has a long history of censorship in matters regarding religion, and most often, victims have been writers and journalists. So yes, the publication of any honest critique of religious texts, monuments or institutions in India is inconceivable. Yes, the laws you read here are in the Indian Constitution, and yes, they were formulated in the middle of the nineteenth century, just about ninety years before India achieved independence. In short, they are archaic. Anyone familiar with Indian history will no doubt be capable of reasoning why they were formulated as such in the first place. It was a time when the British thought it imperative to achieve stability in a vastly varied socio-religious country, a time when the Church and Christian values held sway over even the English rulers.

In themselves, the laws appear harmless enough. In the twenty-first century, however, they have been turned around to hurt most those very people who exercise their right to free speech as a living, in a secular, free country. The IPC 298 and 295A provisions have resulted in the arrest, harassment and censorship of many writers, journalists and academics.

The Constitution of the United States offers a working, valid alternative to emulate. The ‘wall of separation’ between Church (or religions, as is the case in India) and State is a tiny one, with many gaping holes. The famous First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, enacted in 1791, a good 69 years before the formulation of the relevant laws in India, makes it intrinsically clear that the State cannot side with the offended religious, except in cases where the offence is a direct result of open immediate intent to do violence, or ‘advocacy of the use of force’, or ‘false statements of fact’. The distinctions have been made primarily by the Supreme Court precedents, but it is important to understand the First Amendment carries nothing as explicit as to condemn anyone who ‘utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person’; ‘that’ being the ‘recipient of offence’.

In reality, the only excuse the legislatures of India hold is that it is wiser to prevent widespread religious anger in a country where the religious-fascist political parties control militias that outnumber the local police force. A First Amendment like amendment to the Indian Constitution may very well prove difficult to enforce. A shallow argument no doubt, but perhaps, even probably, pragmatic.

No government has been able to muster the courage to seek an amendment, which is obviously what is needed. The courts of the country haven’t set any worthwhile precedents either- most are content to lock up writers that happen to offend the easy-to-hurt ‘religious’. India tries, so far as possible, to cower in fear, and hope that communally motivated rioters don’t think of going on the rampage again. Communal riots happen with unerring regularity, but I refuse to believe that the truth hasn’t dawned on anybody- communal, religious backed fascism flourishes precisely because the Constitution makes it almost illegal to protest. An atheist teacher must fight for his right to not pray, but it is easy to make him go through hell to obtain it. I want my right to free speech- unencumbered and without fear of reactionary retribution, but I cannot have it yet, and so I prefer to live free, and not mention the parties that cause offence to my sentiments. You see, my sentiments aren’t religious sentiments- and that’s the point.

Implement IPC 295-A/298 Properly Or Let Them Die

To challenge laws like IPC 295-A/298 and similar codes in India, you have to start changing the attitudes and environment, which means taking on political and bureaucratic corruption, police intimidation, media complacency and religious fanaticism at the risk of your life. If you can't get respectful treatment, let alone justice for rape victims, what chance do you have, O novelist or artist? Most frustratingly to me, personally, is the elitist indifference of India's intellectuals, who are incapable of imagining that within the teeming “masses,” creativity and individualism are also alive and deserve protection.

It is the absence of the spirit of individualism, which makes India different from the United States and other liberal democracies. While the U.S. Constitution attempts to protect the rights of the people from government overreach, the Indian public seems convinced they need protecting from themselves, and that the government is the one that can do it. These obstacles require a social transformation that will take a generation or more. Now, I am in a bit of a hurry, so instead of challenging the codes, I would like to see it implemented. Yeah, you heard me. I request the Indian government to enforce it in the “full letter and spirit” of the law, which will need the following to be done:

  1. Ban the publication of the Qur'an and other Islamic scripture, which describes polytheists, Christians, Jews and basically all non-Muslims as evil and odious people who Muslims are duty-bound to kill, as these texts are “deliberate attempts to wound the religious feelings” of India's 900 million Hindus, 30 million Christians, 30 million Sikhs, 10-15 million Jains, 10 million Buddhists, 500,000 Baha'is, 100,000 Parsis, 30-50,000 Jews.
  2. Ban the publication of the Hindu Manusmriti, the Christian Bible and if anyone is actually publishing it in India, the Old Testament. The Hindu Manusmriti “wounds the religious feelings” of Harijan-Dalit Buddhists and other Hindus and quite frankly, all of humanity, by its championing of the ancient system of caste slavery. Both the Bibles are full of hate for anyone who doesn't accept them.
  3. Ban religious and political organizations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, etc., which circulate speeches, newsletters, books and commentaries in order to win converts and promote religious violence on basis of their individual religious teachings.
  4. In implementing the law, please allow the accusers of writers and artists arrested to prove the existence of a “deliberate” and “malicious intention.” They will have significant trouble in doing that for lay people, including atheists, but the religious-fascist leaders of the kind of Pravin Togadia, Akbaruddin Owaisi and Imam Syed Bukhari will find it quite difficult to disown belief in their own religions. The prosecution is presented with the “holy scriptures” to use as evidence. They can disown their own speeches, but they cannot disown for their respective gods and prophets. (The Islamic principle of Taqiyya, or God-sanctioned lying, will be a hurdle for sure, but perjury is also punishable in the Indian Penal Code.)

Of course, none of this is bound to happen, but what more can you lose in trying? There is nobody who intentionally “wounds religious feelings” more than the believer of another religion. Most atheists conduct themselves respectfully and encourage only conversation and dialogue. So while an atheist's supposedly “offensive” speech has a good chance of not being “deliberate,” the religious intention to wound both the mind and body is quite “deliberate” as it is prescribed in the same scriptures that founded their faith. India's history of religious violence is evidence for the prosecution of the consequences of ignoring the violation of the codes by the religious. If they respond with violence, they will only justify the continuance of IPC 295-A/298 and further prove that they intend to use words to inspire criminal actions. Even if you somehow manage to convict ten atheists for deliberately wounding religious feelings, that will only be after the trial, conviction and imprisonment of most of India's religious and political leaders. If the latter is guaranteed, the former will be a minor discomfort to the likes of me.

I am an ardent defender of the freedom of expression, so in practicality you will only find me in opposition to laws like IPC 295-A/298. Yet, I am glad for this opportunity to expose how the true problem in India is in the failure to understand what our laws are. Its not that the laws are badly framed, they are purely dishonest because they were never meant to protect the real victims of “hate speech.” Right now, its the worst of both worlds—ordinary, creative people are being imprisoned while the professional fascists break the law and raise the tally of the dead. The true victims had only tasted a delusion of being free.

Reference: A Novel Way to Curb Free Speech

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