File photo of Madras high court
MADURAI: An evangelist cannot outrage other’s religious beliefs and still claim immunity from facing criminal cases for having intentionally insulting religious feelings of others, Madras high court has said.
Justice G R Swaminathan, distinguishing an evangelist’s harsh views on religious beliefs, from similar views expressed by a rationalist or a reformist or a satirist, said the shield of fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution under Article 19(1)(a) would be available only to a rationalist or an academic or a satirist.
“We need Charles Darwin, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and many such others in public life and discourse. Dr Abraham T Kovoor, who wrote the book “Begone Godmen! Encounters with Spiritual Frauds”, cannot be said to have outraged the religious beliefs of Hindus. He was speaking as a rationalist. The fact that he belonged to Christianity is utterly irrelevant. When stand-up comedians Munawar Faruqui or Alexander Babu perform on stage, they are exercising their fundamental right to poke fun at others. Again, their religious identity is irrelevant. It is here, the “Who?” and “Where?” tests matter. Section 295A of IPC cannot be invoked in such cases because the element of malice is wholly absent. The persons concerned voice their opinions or give vent to their expressions in their capacity as satirists,” said Justice Swaminathan.
The judge was making the observations while hearing a petition from parish priest Fr P George Ponnaiah, who was booked for referring to Bhuma Devi and Bharat Mata as sources of infection and filth. The evangelist wanted the court to quash the FIR.
Justice Swaminathan quashed charges like criminal intimidation against Ponnaiah, but held that Section 295A of IPC would be applicable because an evangelist like him could not claim a privilege available to neutral commentators. “He cannot insult or outrage others’ religion or their religious beliefs and still claim immunity from the application of Section 295A of IPC. This is because he views the other religionists as a constituency to be poached. He cannot be called a disinterested or neutral commentator,” said the judge.
Quoting the Newton’s third law — Every action has an equal and opposite reaction – Justice Swaminathan said: “The State cannot remain a mute spectator in such situations. To uphold the sanctity of the Constitution and maintain public order, the strong arm of law will have to come down heavily on those who seek to disrupt communal peace and amity.”
While signing off, Justice Swaminathan said he was certain that on the Judgment Day, God shall admonish George Ponnaiah for having committed an un-Christian act.
Ponnaiah was booked by Kanyakumari police for delivering a vicious speech against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah, DMK ministers and others while participating in a meeting at Arumanai in the district on July 18, 2021. He also referred to Bharat Mata and Bhuma Devi in the most offensive terms.