In quashing a criminal case against actor Suriya and director T.J. Gnanavel, the Madras High Court has spared them the ordeal of facing vexatious proceedings for allegedly insulting a section of society in the acclaimed film Jai Bhim. The FIR cited Section 295A of the IPC, a provision that makes it a crime to commit “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings” on the basis of a complaint that the film insulted the Vanniyar community. A magistrate had forwarded the complaint to the police for the registration of a first information report by concluding that it disclosed a “cognisable offence”. The High Court has rightly concluded that the magistrate had acted mechanically as the order did not even mention what offence was made out in the complaint. In this case, it is quite strange that a perceived insult to a caste was seen as outraging “religious” feelings. It indicates the perfunctory manner in which caste and religion can be conflated with one another by those claiming to be hurt or insulted by others. The court has noted that except for a contention that the film was made in a manner that is likely to incite violence and hostility towards a particular community, there was no specific instance stated in the FIR.
The casual resort to criminal prosecution for perceived insults to religion or any other social segment has become an unfortunate feature of contemporary life. Some years ago, the Supreme Court had to intervene to quash a criminal complaint against cricket star Mahendra Singh Dhoni for being featured in the likeness of a deity on the cover of a magazine. Section 295A has been interpreted by a Constitution Bench in 1957 to the effect that it only “punishes the aggravated form of insult to religion” when something is done with a deliberate and malicious intention to outrage the religious feelings of a class. However, in practice, groups and individuals use some imagined slight to themselves as a pretext to infringe the right to freedom of speech and expression by objecting to films, plays and public performances. In many cases, the police tend to give greater credence to such complaints than they deserve and cite the possibility of a disruption of law and order to clamp down on the screening or performance rather than protect free speech. Constitutional courts do intervene time and again to protect freedom of expression, but often such relief comes after a delay. Books have been pulped and performances and lectures have been cancelled based on threats and complaints more often than needed. These developments can only mean that the fight for free speech has to be fought anew from time to time.