“Section 295-A against the spirit of freedom of expression”

Lord Anthony Lester of Herne Hill QC (UK) said on Tuesday that it was high time India changed its penal code as it did not have many safeguards to freedom of speech and expression.

Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) had been spreading religious hatred as it was against the spirit of the freedom of expression, Lord Lester said in his keynote address on “Multiculturalism and Free Speech” on the fourth day of the Commonwealth Law Conference here.

Further, he felt amendments in similar laws in Pakistan and Bangladesh were needed as the IPC that governed the entire sub-continent was enacted by the British to suit their needs.

“More appropriate, liberal and open laws are the need of the day to encourage multiculturalism and free speech in a diverse country like India”, Mr. Lester said.

He argued that the IPC embodied some relics of English medieval ecclesiastical law and of the Court of the Star Chamber. The adverse impact of some of the code's provisions on freedom of expression was of no concern to the British rulers of pre-independence India, he pointed out.

Multiculturalism had been a subject of considerable and often heated debate in the U.K. in recent years. What was once praised as tolerant practice had come to mean excessive deference to inhuman, degrading and discriminatory practices within Britain's new ethnic and religious minorities, threatening social cohesion and equal citizenship, he noted.

“We live in an age in which even satire [referring ‘Satanic Verses' of Salman Rushdie] about religion is hazardous,” Lord Lester said and characterised cultural diversity as a “rubber and elusive concept” which had proved to be problematic all along.

The relevant principles of international human rights law and freedom of expression were easy to state and difficult to apply and there were few open and plural societies across the Commonwealth and beyond where the basic principles were applied in practice, he observed.

He narrated a number of instances in the U.K., Pakistan and India where some individuals were punished heavily due to blasphemy laws.

He, however, admitted that verbal attacks on religious beliefs were very high across the world. He stressed the need to recognise freedom of expression as the universal human rights.

The session was chaired by eminent jurist Soli Sorabjee. He said the subject of multiculturalism had been a matter of intense debate in the recent past.

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