Silence of the Law

Akshita Manocha Words of Freedom Leave a Comment

In last week’s Saturday Poll, we had asked you whether the right to freedom of speech should include the right to express contrarian views on religion. A mere 8% of the poll takers said it should, against a whopping 92% who feel that the right to express contrarian views should not be considered part of the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The issue has several dimensions and, together with a multitude of factors, presents difficult choices for people to make with respect to what is acceptable articulation and what is not. Any contrarian view has always faced at least some amount of resistance from the general public. Because, by its very nature, it questions popular belief. But such views have also been enormously beneficial in several instances. In fact, some times even religious leaders have changed their views on the interpretation of a custom or edict or ritual as a result of new points of view presented by others. And that has helped many religions be less rigid and remain relevant through the times.

History illustrates many instances when distinguishing scientific enquiry from emotions and religious beliefs has benefited mankind. A classic example is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which faced rejection and criticism from the Church whose religious belief in creation it questioned. Even today there are people who find the theory offensive but humanity has greatly gained, especially by unlocking the doors to great progresses in the medical sciences, from not banning that contrarian view.

There are also a number of cases where contrarian views have infused rationality in cultural mores that are usually dictated by religious beliefs. In India, social reformers have had to fight popular mindset to have gender-biased traditions such as ‘sati’ abolished. In fact, diversity of views on religion have even led to deepening of democracy, as it happened with the ‘self respect’ (atheist) movement in Tamil Nadu in the early years of independence. The two major political parties of Tamil Nadu today are offshoots of this movement.

Nonetheless, it is an undeniable fact that not all contrarian views are scientific or beneficial for mankind. Some might even be mala fide in intention. But that should not mean we take away the right of a person to express his/her thoughts and opinion freely. Debate forms the building blocks of innovation and growth, and hence we should not deny people the freedom to express their views and contradict established ideas without fear. Or, as a society and species, we would lose benefits that accrue from diversity of opinions.

Legally speaking, in India, Act 19(1) of the constitution guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression. But experts feel that Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code is an impediment to the exercise of this right. As per Section 295A of the IPC, deliberate acts intended to insult religion, religious feelings or beliefs are a crime. No doubt such an act should be a crime and be punished. But since the word ‘insult’ is left undefined, there is a huge scope for misinterpretation of what constitutes ‘insult’. Where objectivity is wanting, this provision may even be used against historical works or pieces of art, thus effectively curtailing a fundamental right.

Because this is an issue about ideas that affect several centuries sometimes, history provides the best scale of reference for its significance. Historically, no people in no part of the world have followed just one religion for ever. Whereas on the one hand religion is the prism through which most people in the world see life, on the other hand new knowledge and new circumstances have led to change even of faiths. It is critical, therefore, to recognize religion as being very personal. So, if only because none of us can claim and prove to be god, religion will serve better purpose if it is kept personal to the extent to that it is faith and kept open to criticism to the extent to that it is philosophy.
(The poll was taken by 60 people)


-Udita Upadhyay
Research Assistant – Education

The poll referred to in the first paragraph is the Saturday Poll posted on our social media on 15th February,2014.