Blasphemy Laws in India vis-à-vis Freedom of Speech and Expression

The Constitution of India, in its preamble, states the term ‘secular’, which means that the state shall not interfere in the religious matters of any religion, except for cases where the practice of one violates the fundamental rights given in the Indian Constitution. Further, the citizens are allowed to practice the religion of their choice.

With the ever-evolving society, numerous religions have also clashed for one reason or another, resulting in riots, murders, nuisance, et cetera. Therefore, to prosecute the individuals who violate the religious sentiments of other religions, Section 295A of Indian Penal Code, 1860[1] reserves a punishment of imprisonment for a term that may extend to three years or with a fine or both.

The intention to violate religious sentiments is not a new concept and has been practised since time immemorial. However, with time, the gravity of atrocities following any religious clashes have increased. However, that is a violation of the fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution as well as a violation of Articles 25, 26, 27, and 28 o that guarantee the right to freedom of religion.

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, Blasphemy refers to the “speaking evil of the deity with an impious purpose to derogate from the divine majesty, and to alienate the minds of others from the love and reverence of God.”[2]

Blasphemy is one of the oldest forms of offence against religion. However, in contemporary times, it is not used to protect the rights of a particular religion but to suppress the freedom of speech and expression. Therefore, the punitive measures associated with blasphemy must be stopped.

India, known for its vast culture and unity in diversity, is struggling with the threat of religious clashes and derogatory comments on the religion to hurt sentiments. With the evolution in society, such laws are turning into a weapon. Instead of protecting the rights of people, it suppresses the freedom of speech and expression enshrined under Article 19(1)(a).

Historical Background of Section 295A of Indian Penal Code, 1860

India is primarily a Hindu-dominated nation. People have mostly been practising Hinduism for decades. However, it was only in 1927 that laws relating to blasphemy were enacted and enforced with the interference of the British.

Section 295A was enacted by the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1927[3], and was primarily enacted due to the nationwide clashes against the judgment of Rajpaul v. Emperor,[4] which is famously known as the ‘Rangila Rasul Case’ where the Lahore High Court acquitted the accused while interpreting Section 153A of Indian Penal Code, 1860,

Sometime before the Rangila case, the Allahabad High Court in the case of Kali Charan Sharma v. Emperor[5] ruled that any person who makes any derogatory or bad-taste remarks against a particular religion or its founder can be prosecuted under Section 153A of IPC, and it was at this point where the British interfered and enacted Section 295A of IPC. The Section is even present in the penal codes of Pakistan and Bangladesh.[6]

The Constitutional Validity of Section 295A of IPC

The constitutional validity of Section 295A of IPC was challenged in the case of Ramji Lal Modi v. the State of UP,[7] where the Supreme Court of India ruled that Section 295A of IPC is well within the ambit of protection of Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India. Therefore, its validity is neither to be questioned nor is it violative of the right bestowed in Article 25(1) of the Constitution of India.[8]

In the Ramji Lal Modi case, the court also ruled that this Section does not penalise all the acts that violate or attempt to violate religious sentiments. This Section will only impose punitive measures in cases where there is an intention to violate the religious sentiments of the religion. The court also ruled that the provisions of Section 295A of IPC will only be applied in cases of aggravated forms of insult to a religion, and such insult is intended to destroy public order.

Section 295A of IPC vis-à-vis Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India

Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India bestows the right to freedom of speech and expression, and it includes the right to present one’s views through words, pictures, writings, films or movies.[9] However, the right is not absolute and is subject to reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India, in which one of the grounds of restriction is public order.

In Ramji Lal Modi v. the State of UP,[10] the Supreme Court also ruled that certain activities tend to cause public disorder. Therefore, a law penalising such activities is a law imposing reasonable restrictions.