It's all over the news, so you might have read it - Comedy Nights With Kapil actor, Kiku Sharda has been taken into custody for 14 days for mimicking self-proclaimed spiritual leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan on a comedy show.
The law that was used to start a criminal procedure against him, Section 295A in the Indian Penal Code, was enacted in 1927. It says -
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.
This is how Twitter reacted to it -
Section 295A needs to go. Or modified. Or something. It gives every religious group ammo to go after anyone.— Tanmay Bhat (@thetanmay) January 13, 2016
Existence of 295A alone is sufficient to prove how modern and progressive society we are. What a sad state of a democratic republic.— Ajeet (@_ajeett) January 13, 2016
Don't outrage about this instance. Attack the vile colonial-era law. Sec 295A on "religious sentiments" must go. https://t.co/wrLBNVcG63— Mihir Sharma (@mihirssharma) January 13, 2016
The Indian law enforcement could arrest Sharda because IPC Sec 295A is a real thing. Sharda is being treated like a criminal because as an entertainer, he stuck to the script that was handed to him. He did not steal from, rape or murder anyone. And yet, we live in a society where he's a criminal. He mimicked someone who was himself accused of doing the same. Yes, in May 2007, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan was accused of hurting the religious sentiments of Sikhs by wearing, in an advertisement, an attire, resembling the tenth and final living Sikh Guru Gobind Singh. His followers also organised a demonstration against their alleged persecution at the hands of some religious organisations. Surely his followers see the irony here, right?
Even in that case, the not-so-invisible hand of IPC 295A was being waved around. That's not all. In 2012, two girls were arrested for posting a comment on Facebook about Shiv Sena's former leader Bal Thackeray. In 2015, Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh, Arjun Kapoor and members of comedy group All India Bakchod were in trouble for their much-publicized roast that apparently hurt the 'sentiments' of some people from the Christian community in Mumbai. The participants of the roast had to issue a public apology to the Christian community. In 2012, noted rationalist Sanal Edamaruku disproved the miracle claim of the Our Lady of Velankanni, which resulted in the Catholic Church of Mumbai filing a complaint against his name. He now lives in exile in Finland. Too many people on power trips, I tell you.
And do you see a pattern here? Someone criticizes some religion, some figurehead of said religion files a complaint against the critic, critic either apologizes or ends up in exile (Sorry, Mr. Edamuruku), and it's business as usual. Again, IPC Sec 295A is the *puts on glasses* Brahmastra. The silver lining here - at least we aren't a country like Bangladesh (yet) where radical Islamists have actually killed bloggers who questioned religious practices.
The one thing that is clear here - organized religion in India loves IPC Sec 295A. Why? The answer lies in how the Indian Constitution defines secularism.
By definition, 'secularism' is the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and their dignitaries. And in most other secular societies, that's how it is - there is a clear separation between religion and state. But secularism in India has a whole other meaning. Here, it implies acceptance of religious laws as binding on the state, and equal participation of state in different religions. Which basically means, the state is to respect the Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains (and any other established religion) equally.
But that's not bad, is it? The whole 'peaceful co-existence yada, yada' sounds pretty good, right? Wrong!
They gave us freedom of religion like an older relative doles out money to young kids during festivals. But uncle, what about freedom from religion? You're free to be an atheist or agnostic in India, but the moment you express any form of criticism of religion or god (which, by the way, is the entire premise of being a non-believer), you're in deep water. So yeah, for atheists, this is a you-can-be-yourself-but-you-can't-express-yourself situation. Sucks, doesn't it?
Somewhere in our Constitution there needs to be space for non-believers - a space for them to express themselves. We don't live in medieval times where you get burned at the stake for denouncing the church; nor do we live in a Sharia-based country where the punishment for apostasy (the practice of denouncing your former religion) is death.
We are Indians. We are a country that has a mission to Mars under its belt. We have some of the best scientists and thinkers. We have given asylum to Taslima Nasreen. We cannot afford to be a country that prosecutes a person for dressing up like a god in a magazine cover. We cannot get riled up over a PETA activist asking us to not eat mutton during Bakri Eid. Ignore, not attack, the person and go ahead and feast on the goat you bought. We cannot lynch people on the suspicion that they are eating beef. It does not matter if Kula Shaker sings Govinda or Boy George gyrates to "If you do not take the vow/ you can eat the sacred cow/ You'll get karma anyhow" in Bow Down Mister (which by the way had Asha Bhosle as guest vocalist).
Right now, few religious people are using Sec 295A like an Oscar-worthy footballer feigning an injury.
We need to be the Nokia 3310 of societies. Doesn't matter what anyone else says, we'll not get offended by speech.
We cannot raise intelligent future generations in a society where there is a risk associated with questioning and/or critiquing dogmas, just because they're blanketed under 'tradition and culture'.