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Read Editorial –  Tale of two sections: On vexatious criminal prosecution

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MEANINGS are given in BOLD

The Supreme Court has intervened (take part in something so as to prevent or alter a result or course of events) to spare (give; provide) cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni the ordeal (a very unpleasant and prolonged experience) of facing a criminal trial for allegedly insulting the Hindu religion by being featured in the likeness of a deity (a god or goddess) on the cover of a business magazine. The court quashed (reject as invalid, especially by legal procedure) a criminal complaint filed against him in Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, a provision that makes “deliberate and malicious (hurtful) acts intended to outrage (an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation)  religious feelings” a punishable offence.

The court said there was no deliberate intent (determined to do (something)) on the part of the cricketer or the magazine to hurt religious sentiments. It drew upon the interpretation given to Section 295A by a Constitution Bench as early as in 1957 that it only “punishes the aggravated (made more serious by attendant circumstances) form of insult to religion when it is perpetrated (carry out or commit (a harmful, illegal, or immoral action)) with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of that class”.

It is a matter of satisfaction that the highest court intervenes from time to time to stymie attempts by those claiming that their religious sentiments are offended by some act or remark of celebrities and dragging (pull (someone or something) along forcefully, roughly, or with difficulty) them to courts in different parts of the country. Judicial relief does come in the end, but the bitter truth is that the process is the punishment; it is time our lower courts stop taking reflexive cognisance (knowledge or awareness) of trivial or vexatious (causing or tending to cause annoyance, frustration, or worry) cases filed on the basis that the religious, caste or cultural sensitivities of some group have been offended.

In essence, Section 295A is a thinly disguised (give (someone or oneself) a different appearance in order to conceal one’s identity)  blasphemy law — the only difference being that it is ‘secular’ insofar as it applies to all religions or all forms of religious insult. A close cousin of this provision is another much misused section of the IPC — 153A. Intended to punish those who promote enmity (a state or feeling of active opposition or hostility) between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence and language, and doing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony, this section has been employed to harass (make repeated small-scale attacks on (an enemy)) writers and artists and cast a chill on free expression.

The problem with insult laws, irrespective of the form they assume, is that they are inherently subjective. There is no guessing what causes insult/offence/hurt to people, leaving it open for such provisions to be blatantly (in an open and unashamed manner) misused. In this respect, Section 295A and 153A resemble our controversial contempt of court law — there is no saying what will scandalise (shock or horrify (someone) by a real or imagined violation of propriety or morality) a judge and therefore no saying when and for what contempt may be invoked.

The two IPC provisions encourage the creation of what novelist Monica Ali described as a “marketplace of outrage” — an economy that feeds on anger and hostility. They need to be read down, their scope narrowed in a way that moral vigilantes (a member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate) and those who affect an emotional victimhood can no longer exploit the la w to serve their narrow chauvinistic (feeling or displaying aggressive or exaggerated patriotism) ends.

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