Over the years, in a society that’s getting increasingly edgy, being politically correct has become very important, with many people finding themselves at the wrong end of the law—or mobs, such as those on Twitter—for comments seen to be causing religious offence. In each case, Section 295A of the IPC is invoked—that talks of “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”; imprisonment of up to three years can take place under this section. While the law is clear that the act has to ‘deliberate’, with courts interpreting this differently, the Supreme Court has been called upon to be the final arbiter. In Ramji Lal Modi vs State of UP, in 1957, a Constitution Bench ruled Section 295A “does not penalise any and every act of insult to or attempt to insult the religion … it penalises only those acts of insults … which are perpetrated with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of that class”. In 2007, though, the SC had no problem upholding a ban on fictionalised account of a saint in Sri Baragur Ramachandrappa vs State of Karnataka. But in 2009, in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, after quoting Ramji Lal which said “aggravated forms of insults to religion must have a tendency to disrupt public order”, the court said of Section 66A of the IT Act, “written words may be sent that may be purely in the realm of ‘discussion’ or ‘advocacy’ of ‘a particular point of view’ and went on to add, “the mere causing of annoyance, inconvenience, danger etc., or being grossly offensive or having a menacing character are not offences under the Penal Code at all”.
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Yet, the article—some call it India’s blasphemy law—has been used time and again to file cases with people being arrested by police, as happened in the case of Kiku Sharda for mimicking religious leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect in 2016. In the case of former test captain MS Dhoni, a district court in Andhra Pradesh summoned him for being featured in a business magazine as Lord Vishnu holding a shoe in one hand. The SC, in a 13-page order quashed a complaint, pointing that not all insults on religion are an offence and that Section 295A only applies in cases where there is a deliberate intention of outrage the religious feelings of a class of citizens. Whether the SC’s reiteration of the law will finally clear the air is not clear. If the Sonu Nigam case is taken to court by the religious groups—the singer’s stance on noise pollution being caused by azaan has raised a howl of protest—that will be a test case.