16/08/2016 6:10 PM IST | Updated 13/02/2017 11:37 AM IST

The Law Against Hurting Religious Sentiments Legitimizes Fundamentalism

Parth Sanyal / Reuters

There is no shortage of cases where religious groups, citizens or social organizations file a claim with the authorities on the basis of the Indian Penal Code, particularly Section 295(a), on the basis that their religious sentiments have been hurt. The Catholic Church's claim against Sanal Edamaruku, who explained the scientific basis for water dripping from the feet of a crucifix in Mumbai, is one of the most famous cases, and ultimately led to his self-imposed exile from the country. More recently, residents of a Ludhiana slum filed a claim against the Municipal Council for demolishing a temporary shed-cum-Gurudwara (which was among 40 encroachments demolished that day).

What is needed is a level playing field, not a de facto blasphemy law that restricts freedom of and from religion...

While these are two very different cases, each with their intricacies and nuances, they both rely on the notion that offense is felt in a collective -- that all Catholics or Sikhs feel offense in the same way. In the Ludhiana case, where protests against demolition by slum-dwellers continued throughout the day, the essentialist understanding of communities proved a useful weapon against the authorities – it served to sensationalize and provoke communalism on a demolition which may have otherwise not made news.

The case of Sanal Edamaruku shows nothing but intellectual cowardice from the Catholic Church, which would rather silence than address any dissenting voice against its own authority. It relies on the propagation of the notion that there is only one way to be a Catholic, and therefore seeks to promote the most conservative and orthodox interpretations of religion as the most authentic.

Human social reality means that we all have multiple identities -- linguistic, regional, religious, socioeconomic, gender and so on. Section 295(a) allows the government to dictate expression of religious identity according to what a populist or powerful element defines as hurtful – it is, in essence, a blasphemy law. It legitimizes traditionalist and conservative voices in the name of authenticity, and presents a threat to freedom of religion and the right to examine the claims of the faithful. The famous Wendy Doniger case is a perfect example of this.

We are yet to hear of a case where religiously justified misogyny, which is rampant, is filed as a claim under Section 295(a) by reformists. I hope that never happens, either. What is needed is a level playing field, not a de facto blasphemy law that restricts freedom of and from religion -- a law that runs with an uncomfortably Orientalist slant, where religious traditionalists are incapable of controlling themselves in the face of criticism, reform and dissent. Section 295(a) is an exercise in intellectual and emotional immaturity and serves as a stamp of approval for religious extremism. If their case is so strong, why do they need a law to protect their feelings anyway?

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