The Supreme Court’s observations, while denying bail to defence analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, to the effect that he incited religious feelings in a video posted on social media, were out of place in what was a bail hearing. Such endorsement by the Court, which observed that Mr. Iyer-Mitra would be “safer in jail”, in response to his counsel’s plea that he feared for his life, was less than appropriate. Sending someone to the “safety” of a prison is no answer to questions raised by a prosecution under stringent laws that involve restrictions on free speech on grounds of maintaining public order and tranquillity. In a video post against the backdrop of the Konark temple, Mr. Iyer-Mitra had made some comments that were clearly satirical in nature. While it is entirely possible that his remarks offended some people, it is laughable to assume his intent was to sow discord or create religious enmity. The State police contended otherwise, charging him with outraging or wounding religious feelings and, quite mystifyingly, alleging that his remarks were directed against the “Odiya people”. On cue, the Odisha Assembly is now probing whether his satirical jokes constitute a breach of privilege of the House. Mr. Iyer-Mitra’s arrest in New Delhi by a police team from Odisha for his comments and some other tweets is another instance of the rampant misuse of two sections of the Indian Penal Code — 153A and 295A — on the charges of promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion. However, a magistrate denied the police permission to take him to Odisha on transit remand, and instead granted him limited bail until September 28 on the condition that he join the investigation by that date. His petition for regular bail has now been rejected by the Supreme Court.
The entire episode flags a larger concern: provisions that ought to be invoked only under serious circumstances — a grave threat to public order and tranquillity, for instance, or, in the case of Section 295A, when a purported insult to religion has been done with malicious and deliberate intent — are being misused in a routine manner. When the onus is on the prosecution to show there was criminal intent either to provoke disharmony or deliberately offend religious sensibilities, it is simply wrong to invoke these sections for everything that someone finds objectionable. Irreverence or even bad taste is not a crime. A mere response suffices; the use of prosecution and arrest are unjustifiable. Such an attitude will only make for an intolerant society consisting of easily offended individuals. In a mature democracy, the casual resort to criminal prosecution for perceived insults to either a religion or a class of society ought to be actively discouraged. In fact, the case must serve as yet another prompt to begin the process of reading down Sections 153A and 295A.