Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code-The Hindu-01-08-2022
While Mohammad Zubair of Alt News was arrested for tweeting a still picture from a movie that had some religious context attached to it
What is the history of Section 295(A)?
As far as laws in India go, there isn’t formal legislation against blasphemy. The closest equivalent to a blasphemy law is Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which punishes any speech, writings, or signs that “with premeditated and malicious intent” insult citizens’ religion or religious beliefs with a fine and imprisonment for up to three years.
The History of section 295 A
The history of Section 295(A) of the IPC can be traced back 95 years. In 1927, a satire was published which had obscene parallels to the Prophet's personal life. It was indeed very offensive to the Muslim community but the erstwhile High Court of Lahore observed
that the author of this cannot be prosecuted as the writing did not cause animosity or hostility between any communities. Thus, the offense did not fall under Section 153(A), which dealt with maintaining public tranquility/order. However, this incident gave rise to a demand that there be a law to protect the sanctity of religions, and thus, Section 295(A) was introduced. The legality of Section 295(A), which had been challenged in the Ramji Lal Modi case (1957), was affirmed by a Five judge Bench of the Supreme Court. The apex court reasoned that while Article 19(2) allows reasonable limits on freedom of speech and expression for the sake of public order, the punishment under Section 295(A) deals with the aggravated form of blasphemy which is committed with the malicious aim of offending the religious sensibilities of any class.
Should there be a difference between blasphemy laws and hate speech laws?
The wording of Section 295(A) is considerably too wide. It cannot be stated that deliberate disrespect to religion or religious sensibilities is necessarily tantamount to incitement. The Supreme Court has said on several occasions that perhaps the goal of hate speech statutes in Section 295(A) is to prevent prejudice and ensure equality. Unfortunately, there is a huge disparity between this interpretation and the actual wording due to which the law is still being exploited at all levels of administration. Insulting religion or religious figures may be disputed or condemned but it should not be legally outlawed or prosecuted. The reason for this is that hate speech laws are predicated on the critical distinction between criticizing or ridiculing religion and encouraging prejudice or aggression towards individuals or a community because of their faith.
Blasphemy laws that prohibit religious criticism, in general, are incompatible with the principles of a democratic society. In a free and democratic society, there should be no screening of discourse and dissent. The only feasible solution that stands on the thin line of protection of faith and questioning hate speech should be keeping blasphemy in the statutes but decriminalizing it.