Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code 1860 is commonly known as the “Blasphemy” provision. Its origin story, while dark, is extremely interesting from a civilizational perspective since it sheds light on the larger undercurrents that have been animating the civilizational discourse for centuries now in this part of the world, which I will unpack in future pieces.
For the purposes of the current piece, I will start from the fact that subsequent to the coming into force of the Indian Constitution, the validity of Section 295A was challenged in Ramjilal Modi v. The State of U.P. on the ground that the provision did not constitute a reasonable restriction on free speech and expression within the meaning of Article 19(2) of the Constitution. The factual matrix of the decision itself is strikingly relevant to the times we live in. The Petitioner, the editor and publisher of a monthly magazine called “Gaurakshak”, was acquitted of a charge under Section 153A of the IPC, the “sister” provision of Section 295A which is usually invoked along with it. However, he was found guilty under Section 295A by the High Court of Allahabad for publishing an article “with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of Muslims”. Apart from challenging the verdict of the High Court, the Petitioner also challenged the constitutional validity of Section 295A in his petition under Article 32.
It was contended on behalf of the Petitioner that in order for Section 295A to pass muster on the anvils of Article 19(2), the only limb of the Article that could be relied upon was “in the interests of… public order”. However, according to the Petitioner, since likelihood of public disorder did not constitute a necessary ingredient of Section 295A, the provision could not be supported as one intended to preserve public order and therefore, ran afoul of Article 19(2). It was further contended that since not all acts intended to hurt religious feelings would lead to public disorder, the proscription under Section 295A amounted to an unreasonable and overbroad restriction.