A widely accepted definition for blasphemy could be An irreverence towards
God, religion, a sacred icon, or something else considered sacred.
Maybe you who condemn me are in greater fear than I who am condemned.-Giordano
A widely accepted definition for blasphemy could be an irreverence towards
God, religion, a sacred icon, or something else considered sacred. The
act of blasphemy is criminalized in India by virtue of Section 295A of the
Indian Penal Code [hereinafter S. 295A]. The section was enacted particularly
to target speech that intended to outrage religious feelings by insulting
religion or faith of the people.
The section states-
S.295A. Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or
any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs-
Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious
feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written,
or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to
insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished
with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three
years, or with fine, or with both.
There existed a huge controversy regarding the constitutionality of the section.
This controversy was resolved by the Supreme Court in Ramji Lal Modi v. State
of U.P, where the court held that - section does not penalise every act
of insult to or attempt to ‘insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a
class of citizens but it penalises only those acts of insults to or those
varieties of attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a class
of citizens, which are perpetrated with the deliberate and malicious intention
of outraging the religious feelings of that class.
In my opinion Ramji Modi case must be revisited in light of Supreme
Court’s decision in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India. However,
discussing the constitutionality of S.295A or giving a critique about Ramji Modi
case is not the purpose of this article. Rather, it is an attempt to discuss on
ground application of the said law and discuss the problems involved (if any).
At outset it is necessary to discuss the ingredients of S.295A, viz. a person
1) act ( words, signs, visual representations or otherwise),
2) with deliberate or malicious intention, 3)
of outraging the religious feelings,
4) of any class of citizens of India,
5) insults of attempts to insult the religion or religious feelings.
Although it was intended to keep careless statements or statements without any
deliberate malicious intention out of the scope of S.295A, it’s not the case.
High Courts have held that it is not necessary to prove that the accused bore
ill-will or enmity. This means to say that if the act was done voluntarily
and without any lawful excuse malice may be presumed. In addition to this,
another problem exists with the fact that truth of any statement made or act
done is not considered a defence under this section.
Considering the jurisprudence on this section, I argue that the section is prone
to misuse. The major problem is with respect to two aspects here. Firstly, the
removal of requirement of ill-will is troublesome. Think about a scenario, where
A writes a book on Hinduism, which talks about the life Kamadeva, it’s
presumption that such book will contain intimate chapters or paragraphs and this
hypothetical involves no ill-will as intimacy and Kamadeva’s life are linked to
a great extent.
The question remains is the person liable for an act where s/he had no ill-will
or something which s/he said was a fact according to a school of thought.
Secondly, truth not being a defence under S.295A, if I were to argue from
constitutional perspective the said section casts a chilling effect on
freedom of speech and expression. Let’s look at another situation, where the
Hindu God, Rama’s life is discussed and he is portrayed as a person who consumes
non-vegetarian food, it’s a fact according to some people (a few verses from
Ramayana are attached below with translation) whereas it might be insulting
for some other.
Though, the apex court has interpreted S.295A in manner so as to include only
deliberate or malicious acts of insults to religion under the its ambit. It
is my opinion that the legislation has failed to serve it’s purpose and requires
amendments or perhaps it should be repealed, when looking through the lens of
Constitution. A few examples of such failure would include, an incident that
took place in April 2012, though is incident is particularly related with
section 295 of the Penal code both are related to blasphemy, the Catholic
Church filed a complaint against Sanal Edamaruku, the then President of Indian
Rationalist Association. The complaint was regarding a factual or logical
conclusion related with a weeping jesus on the cross, which Edamaruku was
arguing. He contended that the supposed ‘miracle’ was nothing but the result of
a leaky drain. Edamaruku was asked to surrender and face charges by the police,
since then he lives in exile in Finland.
In addition to this, blasphemy laws face issues with regard to their
enforceability as well. Many cases of religious hate propagation have gone
uncheck. For instance, the tiger of Mumbai, Bal Thackeray used to publish a
series of communal editorials, the Saamna. These inflammatory editorials
were published during riots and proved large-scale destruction and
violence. The government and police failed do anything during the riots, and
even the petitions went in vain despite of the proofs presented.
Therefore, it is my contention that blasphemy laws in India requires
reconsideration. As mentioned above, there are multiple reasons for this
argument along with that of containment of freedom of free speech and
expression. Firstly, there is a multiplicity of opinions as to what would be the
standard for an expression to be considered as blasphemous, there is no exact
definition as to what would be blasphemous. One of the reasons for this lacunae
is, the legislature does not take into account that religions are further
segregated into factions/cults or sects which usually differ from each other on
some major ideologies, for instance Hindus worship Rama as well as Ravana or the
Lingayats. One such faction might consider an expression to be blasphemous while
the other faction may disagree.
Therefore, there is ambiguity or I would rather call it ‘vagueness in the law’
in what blasphemous means as it could range from satire to stating an
alternative thought such as atheism or actual criticism and this ambiguity is
what makes S.295A bad law.
Secondly, S.295A or any blasphemy law (S.195, 296, 298 etc.) has the capacity to
legitimize mob violence or vigilantism. The reason the Code has such a provision
is to punish those who may incite violence by their speech or expression, in
doing so, it establishes that such violence would be an obvious result and
therefore such expressions must be criminalized. While such violence has social
legitimacy, blasphemy laws give such a reaction a legal standard as well.
Criminalizing insult to religion, lends legitimacy to the social persecution of
people who ‘offend’ mainstream religious sensibilities. This in turn
legitimizes the violence.
Thirdly, it is often forgotten that religion is a belief, it’s a faith.
believers must be entitled to basic rights. Protecting such religion with such
laws is similar to protecting any theory against criticism. In other words, it
is similar to criminalization of criticism of Communism, Socialism, Pure theory
Fourthly and lastly, blasphemy laws are inconsistent with secular character of
Indian Constitution. The Indian Constitution provides for reformation, i.e.
curbing of socially unjust practices like untouchability and throwing open of
temples to every citizen. The Indian Constitution has a transformative as
well as reformative approach.
Although India has in place a religious hate legislation, the problem lies not
just with the legislation itself or the lack of it but with its implementation
at both the executive and judicial level. There is at times a lack of
enforcement by the executive level and at times the judicial level. Perhaps, its
high time we become tolerant towards other’s views.
The European Court of Human Rights has held in Handyside v. United Kingdom that
an expression is protected even if ‘offends, shocks or disturbs’. It us
now upon us to choose between whether we need such a law in the first place ?
and if at all we do, are we placing people capable enough to enforce it ?
I conclude this piece by quoting Evelyn Beatrice Hall – I do not agree
with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.
 Italian Philosopher particularly known for his cosmological theories.
 Bryan A. Garner, Black’s Law Dictionary 181 (9d ed. 2009).
 §. 295A, Pen. Code, 1860.
 Law Commission of India , Report No.267, Hate Speech, available at :
http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/reports/Report267.pdf (last visited22nd Sept.
 Ramji Lal Modi v. State of U.P, A.I.R. 1957 SC 620.
 Shreya Singhal v. Union of India,  5 S.C.C. 1.
 Sujato Bhadra v. State of West Bengal,  Crim. LJ 368 [Cal].
 Ratanlal & Dhirajlal, The Indian Penal Code, 484 (34d ed. 2016)
 Baba Khalil Ahmad v. State, A.I.R. 1960 [All] 715; Trustees of Safdar Hashmi
Memorial Trust v. Govt. of Delhi,  Crim. LJ 3869 [Del].
 Ratanlal, supra note 8.
 State of Mysore v. Henry Rodrigues,  2 Crim. LJ 564.
 Kamadeva is considered to be the god of human love and desire in Hinduism.
 Chilling effect is stifling of legitimate free speech through excessively
broad and vague laws, and such laws are backed by a sanction affirmed in Shreya
Singhal, supra note 6.
 taaM tathaa darshayitvaa tu maithiliiM girinimnagaam | niSasaada
giriprasthe siitaaM maaMsena chandayan || 2-96-1, English translation – Having
shown Mandakini River in that manner to Seetha, the daughter of Mithila, Rama
set on the hill-side in order to gratify her appetite with a piece of flesh,
available at : http://www.valmikiramayan.net/ayodhya/sarga96/ayodhyaitrans96.htm#Verse2.
(last visited 22nd Sept. 2019).
 Mahendra Singh Dhoni v. Yerraguntla Shyamsundar,  7 S.C.C. 760.
 [§.295. Injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the
religion of any class.—
Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held
sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the
religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons
is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to
their religion, shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description for
a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
 Indian organisation founded in 1949. It promotes promote scientific
skepticism and critique supernatural claims.
 End Blasphemy Laws: the campaign to abolish blasphemy laws, worldwide-
India, available at : https://end-blasphemy-laws.org/countries/asia-central-southern-and-south-eastern/india/
(last visited 22nd Sept. 2019).
 Omair Rashid, Wounding with ink, available at : https://www.thehindu.com/thread/politics-and-policy/article7773346.ece
(last visited 22nd Sept. 2019);
such editorials include – 1) ‘Muslims of Bhendi Bazar, Null Bazar, Dongri and
Pydhonie, the areas we call Mini Pakistan ... must be shot on the spot.’ and 2)
'Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and people of other faiths ... indulge in
anti-national activities. Such activities should be completely defeated. Muslims
have been able to hold Hindus to ransom.' - Dilip D'Souza, Years That Have
Passed, available at :
https://www.rediff.com/news/2000/aug/07dilip.htm (last visited 22nd Sept. 2019).
 Fernandes, Deepali Ann. Protection of Religious Communities by Blasphemy
and Religious Hatred Laws: A Comparison of English and Indian Laws. Journal of
Church and State, vol. 45, no. 4, 2003, pp. 669–697, 692 JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23920934.
 What’s Wrong With Blasphemy Laws?, available at : https://end-blasphemy-laws.org/whats-wrong-with-blasphemy-laws/
(last visited 22nd Sept. 2019).
 Surbhi Karwa and Shubham Kumar, A Blasphemy Law is Antithetical to India's
Secular Ethos, available at : https://www.epw.in/engage/article/blasphemy-law-antithetical-indias-secular-ethos
(last visited 22nd Sept. 2019).
 Handyside v. United Kingdom, A/24 :  ECHR 5.
 English writer, best known for the Life of Voltaire.