By Saahil Acharya
There are times when the general optimism that seems to be the hallmark of emerging India fails to move me. The optimism zeitgeist has carried on over the past few years, though it ebbs and flows like the tides. Strong voices of protest were heard after the Supreme Court decided it had a duty to protect society against what it considered unnatural, depriving many of our citizens the right to sexual freedom. Though I signed my fair share of petitions and screamed my quota of objections, I was left saddened by the fact that almost no one notices how far the rights of man, every man, have been compromised in my country.
Our nation was born free, just and godless. It took years of struggle, and inspiration from the greatest minds that had lived at the time. We swore ourselves to democracy, and freedom. Of course, every article that begins so ominously implicitly suggests it’s going to veer towards a polemic. This one is. I have no qualms in making the most fervent, degraded, emotionally jading speech I can- so long as I can. Article 377 stole the limelight for many days, and rightly so. What I intend to tell you, however, is that there exist laws that make Article 377 pale in comparison. They exist today, and steadfastly refuse to us the right to that most fundamental of all things- free speech. Of course, many have so far spoken out against these offending articles, but corrective legislation remains a distant dream. Before I go on, I’ll let you have the words.
Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code: 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.
Section 298 of the Indian Penal Code: Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings.– Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
Seemingly innocuous, these sections of the IPC have been, directly and often single-handedly responsible for the most blatant human right violations. In Karnataka, an author, Yogesh Master, was arrested for writing a novel. Yes, you heard it. He wrote a novel, and was arrested. No, it was not a case of mere misunderstanding. Under these evil articles, it’s actually, legally permissible to arrest a man for writing a novel that he knows will offend some section or the other of the easy to offend, religious majority of this great nation. A person involved in the shooting of a film was arrested. His guilt was that his task involved filming a man, dressed as the god Shiva, tugging a rickshaw with two burqa-clad ladies sitting on it. It is impossible to do anything that will not offend a person who believes he has god on his side. Of course, most of us accept the tenets of society, and keep our mouths well shut. As we should. There is no bravado in attempting to exercise your rights when you know you will incite the fury of the right-wing religio-fascist mobs. You may not exercise you right to speech, free and unencumbered, even though it is guaranteed to you as a Fundamental Right by the Constitution. Arrests, book-burnings, defamation and bans- these are the weapons that are furnished to the easy-to-offend by these articles. The solutions aren’t all that difficult to fathom. Yet, we may as well wait for the proverbial water to turn to wine before these solutions are implemented.
Christopher Hitchens would famously call on anyone to point to him a nation that ran on the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Darwin, and let itself down. The achievement of uniting the states of America, a feat great in it, would have been rendered useless were it not for the First Amendment. This great intervention, perhaps the greatest in the history of democracy, erected the famous ‘wall of separation’ between the church and state. In effect, this law makes it possible for the Klu Klux Klan to publicly advocate racism and enjoy police protection while it does so. And every time I read of a KKK rally that was allowed to finish while the police protected its members from the wrath of angry ordinary citizens, my strength is renewed, and I revel in the glory of the First Amendment. For without its existence, the KKK would be more than the ridiculous outfit we know it to be. Without it, India’s journalists, writers, poets and atheists face legal action and censure. Without it, we are deprived of that most important right of all- the right to offend.
So much for theory! My task is also to approach the matter pragmatically. Of course, it is impossible for a political party to offend almost every Indian by removing the articles that give them the right to shut up anyone who displeases them. So legislation, as a remedial measure, is rendered moot. The courts have so far, for the most part, helped our country’s writers to write freely and without fear. In the past, in most cases, they have interfered in the right way, in favour of the right party. The ruling with regard to Article 377, however, shook my faith heartily, though it still survives. One may argue that it is wiser to prevent a riot than to demand realisation of a notion that is, even to the most ardent ‘First Amendment Absolutist’ in India, an idealistic one. To him, or her, I have nothing to say, accept that the rights of one man may never be greater than the other. I am as offended by religious texts as the parties of god, I have no doubt, will be with my article. The only answer is that if I may swallow my offence, than they must swallow theirs. I have no doubt that once allowed to have a say, most religious extremists will shows themselves to be what they truly are, like the KKK.
For now, we- my country and I, are content to shake with fear and withhold our objections. The political climate, like the real one, changes though. If a country as religious as the United States can guarantee itself this protection, than so can we. And we must, if we are to disenchant ourselves from this delusion of freedom, and breathe the real free air.
Saahil Acharya is a native of Calcutta, and a biology undergrad majoring in Cell and Molecular Biology. He has been an atheist for most of his life, and enjoys occasional scribbling, His politics can, at best, be described as secular liberalism, though he seldom squabbles over the definitions. Irony and literature are the loves of his life.