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This article is written by Harshita Ranjan, a student of Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA.

Introduction

India has a diverse population. This amounts to having residents following more than a single religion, speaking different languages, having different cultures and so on. Among all these differences, religion was one of the most important aspects of the lives of the people. The different perspective, faith and belief towards god, divided Indians into different religions. However, living together as one nation needed cooperation, tolerance and liberty towards different religions. Keeping this in mind, the drafting committee under the leadership of Thomas Babington Macaulay, placed a separate Chapter for the offences relating to religion while recommending the Penal Code of India through the First Law Commission. It consists of 5 sections; 295, 295A, 296, 297 and 298.

Section 296 describes the offence of “disturbing religious assembly”. This section was put as an offence to promote religious tolerance, and to maintain peace and order. The idea about this Section was influenced by the English law which talked about the offence of “disturbance during the time of divine service”.

Application

This section is applicable to the followers of a particular religion, instead of a single individual. Hence for the section to apply, there has to be a gathering of people for the purpose of a legal religious ceremony or religious worship to be affected by the offence of Section 296.

Purpose

The whole purpose behind putting this section as an offence is ‘to preserve the freedom’ of performing a religious ceremony by the people who have exclusively met in a quiet place for the same (Vijiaraghava Chariar v. Emperor, 1903). However, if they meet in an open public place, like a shopping mall, then the section is not applicable because the place is not meant to remain quiet.

Punishment

Since, this offence is a mere ‘conduct’ which if performed causes disturbance, will result in an unlawful act, as prescribed in the Indian Penal Code, it is considered as a malum prohibitum offence as the law wants to prevent it to happen. It is a cognizable and bailable but non-compoundable offence. Any person convicted for the offence under this section may get imprisonment for 1 year or a fine or both. The cases on this offence are triable in the court of any magistrate.

Meaning and Explanation

Section 296 of IPC basically means that no person can voluntarily do anything which disturbs an assembly of followers of any particular religion who is performing a religious ceremony or worship. However, if any disturbance is caused during an ‘interval’ between that ceremony of worship, then it is not considered an offence under this section.

There are basically three essential ingredients to be liable for committing the offence under Section 296 of IPC. They are as follows:

  1. There must be a disturbance caused voluntarily.
  2. That disturbance must be caused by an assembly performing religious ceremony or worship.
  3. The assembly must be performing a ceremony or worship which is lawful.  

Voluntary

Since the word ‘voluntarily’ is being used in the verbatim of this section, it means the committing of this offence should include mens rea. The literal meaning of the term ‘voluntary’ means anything being done without compulsion and consideration of return. Hence, in this context, it is not necessary that the accused had the actual intention to cause a disturbance to a religious assembly, however, he already knew the fact that if he does it, it is very obvious that it may cause disturbance and despite knowing this he takes the risk of doing the same (Public Prosecutor v. Sunku Seethalah, 1911).

For instance, if there is a person who goes to attend a ceremony in the church and has an urge to listen to music which got recently released by his favourite singer. He knows the fact that how religious this ceremony is and everyone attending it has very strong religious sentiments attached to it. Still, he goes to a corner and plays the music as he was not able to control himself. This resulted in causing a disturbance and everyone got offended. Here, section 296 is applicable. The person accused did not intend to disturb the religious assembly, however, he knew that there is a possibility that playing the music would tantamount to cause a disturbance. So, there was an intention but not the direct or actual intention to cause a disturbance. Hence. The term ‘voluntarily’ is being used.

Assembly and Disturbance

The term ‘assembly’ used in this section means a group of three or more people gathered for the purpose of worship (Emperor v. Aftab Mohammad Khan, 1940). The disturbance, here, means anything which has taken place against the will of that assembly (Horn v. Sunderland Corporation, 1941). Disturbance can include interference, interruption, changing the position or arrangement, or inconvenience. Moreover, disturbance can also be caused by one religious’ assembly to another community(Laxmikant Balwantrao v. Emperor, 1943). In the case of Muhammad Hussain v. Emperor, it was held by the court that nowhere it is mentioned in Section 296 of IPC that spreading any sort of rumours would be considered as a disturbance, hence, it is no offence. 

Lawful performance of ceremony/worship

The term “lawfully” here means that the religious assembly has been doing what they have a right to do. So, if they are merely in a posture of worship, it is not an offence under this section. Whether worship is real or not is dependent on the facts of the circumstances. For instance, in a case, a religious group was reciting a mantra in their holy place for the purpose of worshipping their god. However, a man started reciting a different mantra that had a completely different meaning so as to distract the minds of that religious group. The court held the accused liable for causing disturbance to that lawful religious assembly under section 296 IPC. (Jaipal Gir v. Dharampal, 1896)

Important Questions

Whether playing loud music by a religious procession in front of a mosque is an offence under section 296 of IPC. (Mahabub Saheb v. Sri Siddhesewara Swami Temple, 1945)

When a group of people moves together in an orderly or ceremonial manner, it is called a procession. In India, it is lawful for any religion to use public streets and play music as a part of their religious procession. The only condition is, that they should not interfere with the ordinary use of that particular street in which they are moving. However, playing music intentionally by any such religious procession in front of a mosque where prayers are being offered, whether it should be treated as an offence under Section 296 of IPC is a difficult situation to prove. It is majorly dependable on the facts and the circumstances of the case.

In any case, a Durga Puja committee was stopped by the Magistrate because the procession was using musical drums in front of a mosque. It was held by the court that it is a violation of Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. It was further held that Article 25 is only subject to the interest of the public order instead of the Magisterial order. (Prabhas Kumar v. Rani Nagar Police Station, 1985). However in another case, the Magistrate imposed two conditions; non-playing of drums and other musical instruments, and that the religious procession must pass by the mosque before a particular hour. The court held that these are valid conditions without violating Article 25 (Debnarayan Saodagar v. Inspector of Police, 1986). Hence, to commit an offence under section 296 IPC, the playing of music to cause a disturbance must be of substantial nature rather than a fanciful disturbance of the worship (Mahabub Saheb v. Sri Siddhesewara Swami Temple, 1945).

Whether spreading rumours about a particular religion amounts to an offence under section 296 IPC (Mohammad Husain v. Emperor, AIR 1919)

Rumour is a circulating talk about someone or something with a doubtful truth. As per section 296 IPC, causing disturbance means doing any act against the will of the religious assembly, but nowhere it is mentioned about the spreading of rumours as a cause of the disturbance. For instance, if a joint family of Christian religion goes to their holy place to perform the last rites of one of their family members named Mr. A, who died, and while the ceremony was taking place, a man, Mr. B, goes ‘live’ on social media and says that Mr. A molested young girls when he was alive. The video gets viral, however, there was no evidence in it.

The video spread very quickly and the family of Mr. A came to know about the rumour. This made the family very angry and they halted the ceremony in order to clear the rumours. Even if Mr. B was aware of the fact that the family of Mr. A is performing religious ceremonies, and in between of that he spreads the rumour which resulted in the halting of the ceremony, Mr. B will not be liable of the offence of “causing a disturbance” to the religious assembly under Section 296 IPC instead Mr. B might be liable for the defamation of Mr. A. The essential ingredient of Section 296 is that doing an act caused a disturbance. Hence, the mere spreading of false rumours even if proved and even if it results in serious consequences, cannot amount to “causing a disturbance”.

Whether loudly using the word “amin” in a holy place is a cause of disturbance under section 296 of IPC (Queen Empress v. Ramazan, 1885)

The word ‘amin’ is used in many religions in their worship to signify that their prayer to god ends here. Even different sects of Muslims use it after the completion of their prayer. In a mosque, which is a place of worship for all the sects of Mahomedans, if a person loudly says “Amin” in his honest exercise of using the word, then it is not considered as an offence to cause disturbance under this section. (Atah Ullah v. Azim-Ullah, 1889) But if at the same time, there is another sect of Mahomedans present there, who do not use the word ‘amin’, then there might be a possibility to cause annoyance to the latter sect.

In the case of Imam Firasat Hussain v. State of UP, after reciting the namaz in a mosque, a group of people within the assembly, loudly uttered the word “Amin”, due to which there was a commotion in that religious assembly. However, the state council failed to point out anything that by such utterances, that particular group disturbed the assembly which was lawfully engaged in offering prayer, hence, it was held that no offence under Section 296 IPC was committed. But any person, who goes into a mosque with no religious purpose and instead has the purpose of disturbing others engaged in their devotions, will render himself liable under this section.

Suggestions

In addition, the researcher has certain suggestions regarding this section. The spreading of false rumours must also be considered as an offence under this section because by virtue of this provision, any act or conduct which has taken place against the will of the religious assembly is a disturbance, and spreading of rumours is also an act which would naturally be against the will of the particular religious assembly. Moreover, since one religious assembly could be held liable for disturbing another religious assembly, so to minimize this, the researcher suggests that there must be certain restrictions on religious processions to not go near any holy place. This way noise pollution and disturbance due to it could be prevented. 

Conclusion

Religious tolerance is one of the major components of a democratic nation. India, which is known as a country with the largest democracy in the world, has enacted several laws to ensure that there is not even a minuscule possibility of discrimination on the basis of religion. It is very evident that every religion has its own way of worshipping and performing ceremonies. There is also a possibility that followers of a particular religion do not appreciate another religion’s style of worshipping or ceremony. It is absolutely normal to have a perception.

However, it is not necessary that every person shall have the same way of thinking. Similarly, every religion is unique in its approach. One religion cannot force another to be like them or to act according to them. Section 296 of IPC prevents and punishes any person or religion who tries to get or have gotten into any particular religious assembly with the purpose to cause any disturbance to such an extent that it becomes an obstacle for the latter. The section ensures that any assembly of a particular religion could peacefully accomplish their worship or ceremony. They have the freedom to do the same. Hence, the principle of liberalism is also applied in this section.


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