Blasphemy is any offense to religious sentiments. Globally, 79 countries have laws penalising blasphemy, ranging from secular states (like Canada, Finland, and Germany) to countries with a state religion (like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia). In secular democratic countries, while these laws protect the rights of minority religious communities and attempt to preserve social harmony, they are heavily criticised on the grounds of being unconstitutional and obtrusive to the right to freedom of speech. Critics also believe that these laws are counterproductive and instead push society to be more intolerant of alternative ideas and belief systems, making the very foundations of religious and moral beliefs more fragile and insecure. Religious reform and social change against draconian religious practices could only be possible because of staunch criticism. Poets, philosophers, authors and even scientists and discoverers who have been persecuted in the past on grounds of blasphemy enjoy popular credibility today for their contributions.
Merits of religious criticism do not however disregard the potential risk to social harmony and possible validation of hostile behavior veiled under the garb of critique. What makes matters more complicated is the active rise in interreligious and inter-sect hatred and access to platforms to express opinions publicly that could potentially be provocative, aggressive, and hurtful to the sentiments of members of certain groups. The Indian constitution in its Article 19(2) provides for “reasonable restrictions” on the freedom of speech to precisely avoid and curb such intentioned violence. Article 295A punishes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. Though India does not have explicit Blasphemy Laws, critics believe that free speech and radical thought is repeatedly impeded in India by invoking these two provisions in the constitution, making it a covert Blasphemy Law. Incarceration of religious minorities and instances of mob violence, lynching and vigilante justice surface up repeatedly in the name of religious blasphemy.
International organizations like the UNHRC and ICCPR have repeatedly questioned the degree to which blasphemy laws are compliant with fundamental human rights. How should then countries navigate between blasphemy, heresy, and hate speech? Is it justified to trade some part of individual freedom for an attempt at social peace? Does criminalisation of religious criticism protect the faith-holders or does it further create instability in the society? Should Blasphemy be punished?
1. Shubhrastha is a noted columnist and TV debater. She is the assistant editor of the India Foundation Journal, and works with the office of the BJP national general secretary, Ram Madhav, in the North-east. She is also the founder at The Churn.
2. Yashovardhan Jha Azad is an IPS officer and a former intelligence professional with the Indian Government. He has also served as the Central Information Commissioner, adjudicating appeals under the RTI Act. He has been awarded various medals of honour for her meritorious service and is also a widely published columnist and Tv commentator. He is at present the Chairman of DeepStrat.
3. Sandeep Ghose is a renowned political commentator and columnist. He has a vast experience in strategy and corporate mentorship, and has worked with companies like Birla corporation and HT Media. He writes regularly for a number of print and digital publications - like ABPNews Live, Daily_O, Mint, Outlook, The Newsminute, Hindu Business Line, Business Today, Businessworld and Swarajya Magazine.
4. Dr. Lenin Raghuvanshi is a Human Rights Activist, political thinker and social entrepreneur. He is the founder of People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights. He is a published author and columnist and writes on various socio-political issues. He has received various awards not just in India but also in the European Union and The United States.
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