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Freedom of Speech and Expression and Blasphemy – A thin line

Freedom of Speech and Expression

The land of rich culture, with the crown of Unity in Diversity, India has always been praised for the variety of culture, region, food, and traditions it holds. The nation has a population of about 1.38 billion with 6 prominent religions. All these regions are different in books yet same in spirit, but the difference in these religions seems to widen rapidly.

The fissure created after the colonial rule between the Hindus and the Muslims seems to be never-ending but this is not a matter of these two religions anymore, the poison of intolerance is spreading among other religions as well. India, a symbol of brotherhood is turning into a kiln of religious bigotry and the fire might engulf our glory. Under the ambit of freedom of speech and expression, people have completely worn out the line of blasphemy. They now take the right as an unfettered privilege to settle the supremacy of their own religion.

In this article, I will be discussing the rights of freedom of expression which the constitution provides and its limits. I will further be throwing light on the blasphemy laws in India proceeding to past and recent cases of blasphemy and finally about the need to understand the difference and draw a line.

Freedom of Speech and Expression

Freedom of Speech and Expression

Freedom of Speech and Expression is a right that is imbibed by a human on his birth. This is a basic right that is devoted to humankind. Article 19(1)(a) found in Part III of the Constitution of India talks about this right. Man in a civil society strives to achieve all his desires but to limit this right; it is imposed with limitations under article 19(2) for the purpose to maintain tranquility and public order. This was ensured by the First Amendment Act which was laid down after the Landmark cases of Romesh Thappar v. the State of Madras and Brij Bhushan v. the State of Delhi, before which the relevant part of Article 19(2) allowed the government to restrict speech that undermines the security of or tends to overthrow, the State.

The scope of the restriction was examined by the Supreme Court in these Landmark cases. The meaning of freedom of speech and expression under the article deals with one’s thoughts and opinions expressed without any restrictions through words, print, pictures, or any other communicable mode. In the present generation of social media, everyone has a voice. They can conduct their views and ideas easily but the most significant part of it is that they can choose to have their identities hidden. Any person sitting behind the screen can write anything which can entice hatred especially related to sensitive topics among the communities. On one hand, people take the right to exercise their freedom and live a life free from barriers but on the other hand, there are people who either deliberately create situations to build unrest country or have untamed religious views.

Blasphemy Laws in India

In the present case scenario, blasphemy is words spoken or any action stating sacrilege about god or any sacred thing. Iran and Pakistan have established capital punishment for this offense. Concerning the laws in India related to blasphemy, Chapter 15 of the Indian Penal Code addresses offenses relating to Religion. Section 295 of the code speaks about Injuring or defiling place of work ship, with intent to insult the religion of any class, Section 295A deals with deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs, Section 296 talks about Disturbing religious assembly, Section 297 talks Trespassing on burial places, etc. and Section 298 deals with Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings.

Cases of Blasphemy in India

In the case of Ramji Lal Modi v. the State of UP, the Supreme Court in a 5 Judges bench held the constitutionality of Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code and set it valid. The reason stated by the Supreme Court was that Article 19(2) permits reasonable restrictions concerning freedom of speech and expression intending to the interest of public order. The reasoning given by the apex court was that the punishment under Section 295(A) deals with the aggravated form of blasphemy when it enters into malafide intention of outraging religious feelings of any class.

In the case of The Superintendent, Central Prison, Fatehgarh vs Ram Manohar Lohia, the Apex Court stated that the link between the speech spoken and any public disorder caused as a result of it should have a close relationship with each other for fetching Section 295A of IPC and it is always open to the State to make such reasonable restrictions which are permissible under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

There is news of Comedians and other performers’ arrests for blasphemy. Recently, comedian Munawar Faruqui was arrested for hurting the religious feelings of the people by the Indore Police. The Madhya Pradesh High Court denied his bail stating that such people must not be spared. In the landmark judgment of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, the Supreme Court distinguished between advocacy and incitement stating that “that is any law seeking to impose a restriction on the freedom of speech can only pass muster if it is proximately related to any of the eight subject matters set out in Article 19(2).”

The line between Freedom of Speech and Expression and Blasphemy

The foundation of human dignity is in freedom and justice. To achieve these rights, numerous battles were fought by our ancestors with the hope that the coming generations raise their heads in pride, free from any oppression of thought, movement, speech, or expression, and where their mind is without fear. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays three fundamental principles to the equal right for all people number-

  • The right should be a universal number
  • These rights should be inalienable and a number
  • The rights should be indivisible

These basic rights are equally distributed among all citizens and they should be exercised in such a way that using your own right doesn’t demolish the rights of someone else and that is where the state plays its role. Article 19(1)(a) talks about freedom of speech and expression which is a right that helps us enable the other rights and protect them. The motive of this article is to enable humankind to develop in a democracy which is a major part of the Indian political system.

On one hand, the access to information makes the democracy stronger and the information collected can be used to speak out against the government or any topic bothering us, it is to increase one’s knowledge and make one participate in society. But these rights are subjected to restrictions to maintain the balance in the society the people and the government have to work per the law.

These rights are transparent enough to be interpreted by all, none of them should be penalized for saying what is true but on the other hand, they should be equally liable for stating any speech which is said with an intention to insight discrimination and violence. Journalism plays a very important role in communicating information across the civilized. People have to understand and value the other religion, that each religion has equal rights as their own. Prioritizing one’s own religion by putting the other religion down cannot be tolerated and should be a punishable offense.

There should be a sense of intelligible differentia among the citizens between stating facts and stating opinions publicly. The wrong done by any religion should be brought before the Courts so that they are testified and scrutinize by the judiciary and maintained by the executive. This will create a sense of rationality and maintain the ecosystem of a valid community but, on the other hand, fake propaganda should be analyzed by people in general and discard at the instance of their inception.

Such people should be publicly criticized but keeping in mind the law and any repercussions that might arise as a result of any violence against them. Before raising any religious topic, people should be sensitive enough to understand any consequences of the speech. This is not only from the perspective of attracting any penal provision but also looking at how it might affect the sentiments of a particular religion.

Blasphemy is not only sacrilegious speech against any other religion but their own religion as well so if someone is an atheist, they should forbid themselves from giving any negative comments about any religion. In India, where people are completely indulged in the trust of God, it is very difficult for them to accept new things so if there are new ideas or facts and they are to be brought in front of the world, they should first be paragraph into sensible statements so that the author could communicate his thoughts without drawing any negative repercussions.

Conclusion

With the increasing number of blasphemy cases and more and more people being subjected to the penal provisions of these laws, the question arises as to where is the shortcoming, is it with the understanding of the people of the law or handling by the Judiciary or the rules imposed by the executive? There needs to be a proper balance to maintain a sustainable environment for all these religions to survive and grow together. There should be an influential impact of every religion on the other and each religion should understand the importance of the other religion.

On deeply understanding the laws related to blasphemy and freedom of speech and expression, we can bring out the thin line which is needed to be maintained to curb any future possibilities of violence or disruption. People being sensitive enough and judiciary being prudent enough can help with halfway out of this situation. The government has to take stringent actions against the one who gets involved in any of these sacrilegious activities but the government also has to keep in mind that the people are not taken away from their rights. The search is to maintain the right balance.


Editor’s Note
The Article looks into India’s hate speech laws which are intended to avoid strife among the country’s numerous ethnic and religious minorities. The author distinguishes between “shocking, offensive, and disturbing speech” and speech which is critical because it enables us to improve strive for better. The detrimental effects of offensive expressions and those that undermine the entire concept of equal citizenship or assault a collection of religious beliefs and attacks a religious group’s civic position can be better understood after reading the Article.

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