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The Holy Quran and the arms of law
By Tahir Mahmood
| "It cannot be said that the Quran offers any insult to any other religion. It does not reflect any deliberate or malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of non-Muslims. Isolated passages picked out from here and there and read out of context cannot change the position…. If any offence within the meaning of Section 295 IPC is committed in respect of the Quran it will be punishable." This is how Justice Bimal Chandra Basak, speaking for the Calcutta High Court in 1985 in Chandanmal Chopra’s case, stated the position of the holy book of Muslims in the context of the Indian penal law.
The learned judge was disposing of a petition making some mean allegations against the Quran – the solitary scripture of Islam revered by millions of souls across the globe. "For the Muslims the Quran is ipsissima verba of God Himself … the al-Furqan, i.e., showing truth from falsehood and right from wrong"; it is a sacred book and "an object held sacred by a class of citizens" within the meaning of Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code", he observed explaining the religio-legal status of the Quran in this country. "This book is not prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religions. Because of the Quran no public tranquility has been disturbed up to now and there is no reason to apprehend any likelihood of any such disturbance in future. On the other hand the action of the petitioners may be said to have attempted to promote, on the grounds of religion, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religions, i.e., between Muslims on the one hand and non-Muslims on the other, within the meaning of Section 153-A of IPC," asserted a deeply concerned judge. Holding that the malicious allegations against the Quran were "an affront on Islam’s supreme scriptural authority", he decided that those levelling such allegations could be regarded as guilty of an offence punishable under Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code.
The provisions of the celebrated Indian Penal Code of 1860 – the Tazirat-e-Hind in its original vernacular name – referred to by the learned judge are part of either of its Chapters on “Offences against Public Tranquility” and “Offences relating to Religion”. In the former Chapter, Section 153-A declares that promoting or attempting to promote on the grounds of religion or community, etc. "disharmony, feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will" between different groups or communities shall be an offence punishable under the law. Its present amended version clarifies that "whoever commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb public tranquility" will be guilty of an offence under this Section. In the Chapter relating to religion, Section 295 speaks of the offence of "destroying, damaging or defiling" any place of worship or "any object held sacred by any class of persons". Section 295-A adds that insulting or attempting to insult the religion or religious beliefs of any class of citizens with an intention of outraging its religious feelings shall be an offence. For these and similar other offences the Code prescribes the punishment of imprisonment and fine.
The Constitutional validity of the aforestated Penal Code provisions on offences relating to religion, challenged in some cases on the ground that they “violated” the Fundamental Right to speech and expression, has been firmly upheld by the Supreme Court of India. It could not have been otherwise. The Constitution of India does obligate every citizen of the country with a Fundamental Duty "to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities"-- Article 51-A (c).
It is indeed a disgusting spectacle to see today these very crimes relating to religion punishable under the Indian Penal Code being openly committed in respect of the Holy Quran. It has in fact become a favourite pastime for all sorts of people, including some persons claiming to be spokesmen of certain religio-political bodies. They take pride in committing it, day in and day out, in their public speeches and writings and, of late, even in the form of TV debates.
What is happening is indeed a disturbing trend. What is much more disturbing is the apathy and indifference of the custodians of State authority and guardians of Rule of Law to this vulgar display of disregard for the public law of the country -- the Constitution and the Penal Code – which it is their sacred responsibility to protect and enforce. If some citizens of India are not to be blessed with a higher pedestal of citizenship than all others so as to claim a blanket exemption from the clear injunctions of Constitution and immunity from clearer Penal Code provisions, something has to be done about it. We have to awaken to the urgency of taking some effective steps to remedy this alarming situation. This is indeed a pressing need of the hour.
The way certain chosen passages arbitrarily picked up from the Holy Quran are being used to demonise the Muslim religion is bound to create feelings of ill-will in the society against the second largest section of citizens and thereby disturb social tranquility in the country. What is being overlooked is the fact that the message and spirit of some religious texts can be appreciated only by those who have a certain degree of respect, if not reverence, for them -- those reading such texts with irreverence or hostility can never be at ease with their teachings. And it is indeed true of all religions. Well known is the fact that some of the ancient religious texts of the great Hindu religion are replete with apparently very cruel words and harsh injunctions for the “lower castes”. The so-called Shudras are not allowed by religion even to hear the sacred texts. “If a Shudra intentionally hears the recitation of the Veda let his ears be filled with melted zinc or lac; if he himself recites a Vedic text let his tongue be cut off” , pronounces the Gautama-Sutra [XII : 4-6]. Even Kautilya the Great enjoins that “the limb of a Shudra with which he strikes a Brahmin shall be cut off “, and a Shudra who has sex with an upper-caste woman “shall be burnt alive in fire” [Arthshastra, III: 18.7/19.9].
What is worth noting in this context is that the non-Hindus are placed by the Hindu religious texts even below those unfortunate Shudras; and so one can imagine their lot. The place of non-Hindus in the Hindu religion can, thus, be no better than that of the so-called kafirs supposed to be under Islam. "Malechhas are outside the four varnas, a Brahmin should never even speak as much as a word to such people" warned a prominent text [Vashishta, VI : 41]. Can the non-Hindus, then, begin confronting the Hindus of today’s India, or enter into TV debates with them, on the meaning and implications of these and many other similar texts found in their ancient religious literature denouncing the Shudras and the Malechhas? It will indeed be atrocious for any non-Hindu to do so. It is indeed as much atrocious for a non-Muslim to propagate his personal understanding of some sacred texts of the Muslims and confront with it some ordinary Muslims not even equipped with sufficient knowledge to reply. In doing so he is not just ignoring his Constitutionally enjoined Fundamental Duty – he is also committing a crime under the country’s Penal Code. The diatribe home-delivered to millions of children and other innocent brains by the electronic media will result in the country going to the dogs.
Religious polemics are bitter relics of the past. We cannot afford to revive them in the 21st century India rightly proud of its scientific advancement and technological excellence. If we go on searching each other’s religious texts to find isolated passages which may not appear prima facie palatable to us, it is not going to lead us anywhere. Such passages are things of the past. No one is acting on these now; no one indeed needs to. There is a lot more in all religious texts which can bring us together. We have to concentrate on those refreshingly humane texts and try to come closer – bring all our people closer. The Holy Quran – the same Quran in which ignorant critics find a verse which according to their understanding asks Muslims to kill kafirs – after declaring that "Mankind is one single community" [II:213, X:19] pronounces in no uncertain terms: "If anyone kills one person it is like he has slain the whole mankind; and if anyone saves one life it is like he has saved the whole mankind" [V: 32]. And, as regards the much-talked about and misunderstood term "kafir", it is the same Quran proclaiming unequivocally that "For every community God has appointed religious rituals, they must not quarrel in respect of these rituals. [XII: 67]. What is indeed more reassuring and thought-provoking in respect of inter-religious harmony is the fact that numerous injunctions in the Holy Quran and the Sacred Vedas are more or less identical in their meaning and message – all teaching their respective followers the same lessons in devotion to the Creator of Universe and mutual love and respect among mankind. "All mankind belongs to God, He rewards all those who are virtuous and punishes all evil-doers" proclaim both the Rigveda [I: 80.11] and the Quran [LIII:31]. Rigveda’s injunction "Pray to God as you wish but with humility and quietness; He does not like those who cross limits" [VI: 16.46 ] finds its exact parallel in the Quran [VII 54-55]. The ancient Indian philosophy of "vasudhev kutumbukam" compares with Islam’s injunction al-khalqu ‘ayalillah [mankind is God’s family]. It is these common teachings of the Hindu and Islamic scriptures, as also the other countless pearls of wisdom found in each of these, that need the attention of members of both the communities – not those which may even be remotely interpreted to be annoying for one community or the other.
The Fundamental Duties under the Constitution are, unfortunately, not enforceable by any specific legal process; and the Penal Code provisions on offences against religion have in the past been subjected to pro-acquittal rule of ‘strict interpretation of criminal laws’ creating precedents unfit to effectively meet the present situation and leaving enough room for mischief by mischief-mongers. Both are in need of a thoughtful reform to nip into the bud the anti-national trend of creating religious disharmony by publicly vilifying sacred scriptures that has begun raising its ugly head. Religious harmony in the country must be ensured. Inviting attention of the guilty to the common humanistic teachings of the scriptures alone will not do. The law too must stretch out its arms. q
Dr Tahir Mahmood is senior professor of Law, Delhi University, and former chairman, National Minorities Commission
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