Supreme court of India
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This article is written by Varchaswa Dubey from JECRC University, Jaipur. This article is concerned with the case of Sri Dulal Ghosh v. State of Tripura, 2021. Furthermore, the article also reflects certain significant judgments regarding Section 295A of IPC. 

Introduction

The intention to violate religious sentiments has been a prime concern since time immemorial, especially in the Indian context due to people being highly spiritual to their religion, and therefore, even straightforward opinions delivered by people, especially of other religions tend to hurt the religious sentiments of people promptly. 

An increase in the number of cases where freedom of speech and expression is reserved under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India has led to an increase in hateful comments towards a particular religion, which has further led to communal riots and limitations to the right of speech and expression. 

The concept of blasphemy is not new in the Indian context, and with ever-evolving time, various instances of hurting religious sentiments by different religions have been observed. More importantly, the misuse of legal provisions intending to prosecute those responsible for hurting religious feelings has been observed, which has caused a nationwide debate. 

Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 deals with the punitive measures imposed in cases where an individual is found guilty of deliberately outraging or hurting the religious feelings of any individual, by words, either spoken or written or through any signs or visible representation, which insults or intents at insulting the religious beliefs of a particular class of people. Under this Section, such a person shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend up to three years or fine, or both. 

In the case of Sri Dulal Ghosh vs The State Of Tripura (2021), the petitioner has prayed for quashing the First Information Report (FIR) against him under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. 

Origins of Section 295A 

Section 295A was inserted in the Indian Penal Code, 1860 under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1927, after a huge debate was triggered in “Rangila Rasul’s case”, where the Lahore High Court while interpreting Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, held that no offence had been committed by the person on trial before the Court. However, a contrasting judgment was delivered in the case of Kali Charan Sharma vs Emperor (1927), and it was then that the Legislation interfered and decided to enact a new provision, namely Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. 

Facts of the case

In the present case, the petitioner had prayed before the Supreme Court of India for annulling the FIR filed against the petitioner under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The complainant in the FIR alleged that his religious sentiments were violated by the comment of the petitioner on his Facebook page, where the petitioner has made obscene comments on the Hindu religion by referring to the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred religious textbook of Hindus, as “thakbaji Gita”, resulting in hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus. 

Issues raised 

The primary issue raised before the Supreme Court of India was whether the petitioner, who has posted a comment on Facebook regarding the holy book Bhagavad Gita, had committed an offence under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Contentions of the parties

Arguments of the petitioner 

The petitioner argued that the statement made by him had been misinterpreted and that he neither had the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the Hindus nor did he desire the same, and therefore the criminal complaint against him must be disposed of. 

The petitioner through his counsel stated that he is a rationalist and he has been posting comments on social media, based only on his personal beliefs. He argued that he had no intention to humiliate the Bhagavad Gita.

Arguments of the respondent 

The complainant in his criminal complaint alleged that the petitioner always made undignified comments against the Hindu religion and was always intending to hurt the religious sentiments of the Hindus. 

The learned Additional Public Prosecutor had contradicted the petition arguing that the petitioner in the case in hand had reflected the intention to hurt the religious sentiments by making degrading comments on a holy book and that the Court must not interfere in the case at such a stage where the investigation is not complete, and this is not the only time where the petitioner has displayed an intention to hurt religious sentiments; the petitioner had published such comments many times before.

Observations and judgment of the Court

Ratio decidendi 

In the present case, the Supreme Court of India examined the case by considering the observations made in the case of Ramji Lal Modi v. State of U.P. (1957), which ruled that not every act of insult or any attempt to insult religion will be prosecuted under Section 295A of IPC, but only those which include a deliberate intention to outrage the religious sentiments. 

  • The Court held that merely the allegation of the petitioner having a habit of posting such posts which violate the religious sentiments of a religion cannot be allowed as a ground for conducting an inquiry. 
  • The Court further held that the post of the petitioner in the present case lacks any background or foreground, and it is not possible for any common man with reasonable intelligence to notice any degrading remarks which are allegedly made by the petitioner on Bhagavad Gita. 
  • The Court furthermore held that the words used by the petitioner and the words which have been reproduced before the Court for better clarity in Bengali script fail to establish any derogatory meaning which the complement is trying to establish. 
  • The Court lastly observed that insults to religion offered unwittingly or carelessly or without any deliberate or malicious intention to outrage the religious feelings of that class do not come within the Section.

Obiter dictum 

The Apex Court, while analyzing the contemporary scenario where the right to free speech and expression has evolved significantly, especially on social media, explained that social media activity has more permanent effects compared to traditional platforms like statements made to a small group of people. The statements made on social media are also likely to reach more people with great speed, even at the international level, however, what holds back the pace of such statements of the right of free speech guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India is Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India, which places certain grounds of restrictions on the right of free speech and expression. 

Section 295A of IPC is concerned with the punitive measures imposed in cases where there is the intention to violate the religious feelings of any class by any means.  

The Apex Court further emphasized the case of Mahendra Singh Dhoni v. Yerraguntla Shyamsundar and another (2017) where the Apex Court took similar views. 

The Court, while answering the question of whether the petitioner in the present case had violated the religious sentiments, answered in negative and held that going by the dictionary meaning of the statement made by the petitioner in the Bengali script, which is in written form, there were no consequences and due to the lack of any background or foreground, the case in hand does not fall within the ambit of Section 295A of IPC. Therefore, the criminal proceedings against the petitioner were disposed of.

Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860

Cases under Section 295A

The constitutional validity of Section 295A of the IPC

In the case of Ramji Lal Modi v. the State of U.P. the Supreme Court of India which determining the constitutional validity of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 held that not all the acts which violate or insult or attempts to affront the religious sentiments of a particular religion will fall within the scope of Section 295A of IPC, but only such conduct will be prosecuted where the intention to outrage the religious sentiments of a particular religion is done intentionally. 

The Court further held that the expression “interest of public order” reserved in Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India is much more than just maintenance of public order, and therefore, even if a particular act does not cause a breach of public order, the restrictions in the interest of public order will be reasonable. 

Essentials of Section 295A of IPC

The Supreme Court of India in the case of Sujato Bhadra vs State of West Bengal (2005), gave the essential ingredients required to make out a case under Section 295A of IPC, wherein a person: 

  • By written words, 
  • Deliberately, and with malevolent intentions, 
  • Outrages the religious sentiments or religious beliefs, 
  • Of any individual or class of individuals, 
  • Insults or attempts to insult the religious feelings or beliefs of a particular class.  

The Court further held that the jurisdiction of Section 295A of the IPC encompasses only the citizens of India, and those who are not citizens of India, cannot claim the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. 

Protection of religious sentiments 

In the case of Mohan C.Lazarus vs State Represented by Inspector of Police (2021), the Madras High Court, while quashing the FIR registered against the petitioner after an unconditional apology, observed that throwing up malice against another religion and having hatred against members of a certain religion challenged the very purpose of religion.

The Court further held that individuals who are capable of influencing a large section of society through religious sentiments must be very cautious while exercising their right to expression, or religion, or any concerned right. Such practice of rights cannot be at the cost of hurting the religious sentiments of other citizens. 

Misuse of Section 295A of IPC 

In the case of Munnawar S/o Iqbal Faruqui Vs. State of Madhya Pradesh (2021), a comedian was arrested on the pretext of hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus and Union Home Minister, Amit Shah. The petitioner contended that he never uttered any words which may violate the religious sentiments of the Hindus or against Amit Shah. 

The matter eventually went to the Supreme Court of India regarding bail application by the petitioner, after the counsel representing the petitioner submitted that the arrest was made in violation of Section 41A of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and that the allegations were vague. The Apex court granted ad-interim bail to the petitioner, on the conditions to the satisfaction of the Trial Court with a further condition that the applicant shall not indulge himself in any such activity which could disrupt public order. 

Section 295A of IPC vis-a-vis the right to expression 

In the case of Sri Baragur Ramachandrappa & Ors vs State Of Karnataka & Ors (2007), the Supreme Court of India held that no individual has a right to infringe the feelings of others on the premise that his right to freedom of speech remains unrestricted. It cannot be ignored that India is a country with vast differences in religion, language, culture, etc, and unwanted criticism in the faith of religion of others cannot be accepted. 

Conclusion

After understanding the essentials, and landmark judgments regarding Section 295A of IPC it can be concluded that the Section only aims at punishing such deliberate and malicious acts, which are done with the intention to outrage the religious sentiments. The provision was enacted and inserted in the penal code during 1927 when Hindu-Muslim riots took place due to provocative statements during the rule of the British in India. 

Section 295A of IPC certainly falls within the ambit of Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India and aims at suppressing such acts which outrage the religious sentiments of any religion or class of people who are protected by the law of the land. While there are debates that Section 295A is being misused, on the other hand, it can also be observed that this Section protects the interests of all the religions prospering in India, which is known for its diverse culture. 

References


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