Delhi-based journalist Abhijit Iyer Mitra, who was booked under different sections of the IPC was denied bail by the Supreme Court for his controversial remarks on Sun Temple of Konark, Jagannath Temple of Puri and about MLAs of Odisha. Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi said that since Iyer Mitra had incited religious feelings, he is not entitled to get bail.
The Odisha police had earlier told the court that Mitra “gave unpalatable and irresponsible remarks on Konark Temple by uploading his views on social media with an intention to outrage and wound religious feelings”. Mitra, who is also a senior fellow of Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies and a close friend of former Biju Janata Dal MP Bijayant Panda, later clarified that he made those comments jokingly. Nevertheless, his remarks created a furore in the Odisha Assembly and he has been summoned by the House committee on October 11.
Right to Speak
Considering Mitra’s present and earlier comments that Bengali people discovered Odisha, Jagannath Temple was built by the Gangas — the disgraced retainers of Pallava dynasty, etc, it may be justified to call his remarks irresponsible, derogatory and intended to outrage religious feelings. His comments on the 13th century Sun Temple that those erotic sculptures are against the tradition of Hindu community and it was a conspiracy of the Muslims to denigrate the Hindus, contribute to the present majoritarian social upsurge, ignited by the Hindu rightist outfits.
Yet, we need to defend his right to speak his mind as long as such comments do not directly call for violence against any individuals or community. Criticising, mocking or offending religious beliefs should not be construed as hate speech. The very concept of fundamental human rights always upholds such divergent opinions.
The infamous sections 153A, 295 and 295A of the Indian Penal Code punish persons who indulge in wanton vilification or attacks upon the religion, race, place of birth, language, etc, of a particular group or class or upon the founders and prophets of a religion, damaging places of worships, insults religion and religious beliefs. Section 295A is a cognisable non-bailable and non-compoundable offence. Mitra is booked under these sections.
No Bias Please
The laws dealing with insult and injury to the sentiments of groups and communities (organised around religion, caste or any other form of identity) are routinely used to curb the freedom of expression. If Mitra’s comments are inciting religious feelings as observed the CJI, what about the Sri Ram Sene Chief Pramod Muthalik’s comment that Hindus should keep sword handy and use it if challenged or BJP MP Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti’s speech asking voters to decide whether they would elect a government of ‘Ramzadon’ or of ‘Haramzadon’? What about Giriraj Singh’s comment of “those speaking against Mr Modi should be sent to Pakistan”?
Currently, there are 58 MPs and MLAs who have declared in their electoral affidavits that cases relating to hate speeches are pending in courts against them, according to an analysis by the Association for Democratic Reforms. Of these, 27 lawmakers are from the BJP. None of them has been arrested or hounded by police, lawmakers and House committees as Mitra.
Protecting Serious Works
Authors and intellectuals from across the world, including historian Romila Thapar and playwright Girish Karnad, had appealed to the Government of India in 2014 to either amend or scrap section 153A and 295A to protect works of serious academic and artistic merit from motivated, malicious and frivolous litigation. Their appeal came after Penguin Books India decided to pull out all copies of American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ from sale following legal threats by rightwing groups. Penguin India said that “intolerant and restrictive” Indian laws forced it to do so.
Many European states have blasphemy laws on the statute book, designed to protect established or privileged churches, but they are hardly ever invoked. Russia, Kazakhstan, Poland and Montenegro are on the list, but most other former communist countries have no blasphemy law. Canada and New Zealand have laws relating to blasphemy and hate speech; however, those laws explicitly uphold the right to robust religious debate, as long as it is conducted in ‘good faith and decent languages’.
In India, hate speech laws have targeted mainly intellectuals, authors and other free thinkers instead of those politicians who spew hatred against religious groups and communities to polarise society for political gains.
The Republic of India was founded on the principle that government should not be in the business of deciding what people can and cannot say. The reasonable restrictions as laid in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution is interpreted by courts in different cases and the interpretations of courts widen the scope of unrestricted freedom of speech rather than restricting it in the name of sovereignty and integrity of the nation, security of state or keeping healthy relations with foreign countries. The idea of democracy holds that free expression will encourage a marketplace of ideas where the good and just ideas will rise to the top and bad and immoral ideas will be rejected in the long run.
India must reform its hate speech laws, if it cannot be scrapped, to stop harassment against free thinkers, authors, journalists for their opinions and ensure unrestricted freedom of speech. Those who encourage or abet crime and violence with malicious intention should be prosecuted under general criminal laws.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)