The FMP's panel discussion on 'Is religion beyond media's scrutiny?' brought forth interesting responses. Some speakers, notably Chandan Mitra and Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, took objection to the use of the word 'scrutiny' as in their view the word requires a high degree of competence on the part of journalists, who are generally unaware of the nuances of religion, which they want to scrutinise. But as Madhu Kishwar pointed out, are those claiming to be religiously outraged by contents in the media competent to understand, protest against and seek censorship of what, according to them, offends co-religionists?
The consensus was that they are not. But what appeared to divide the panelists, especially, Chandan Mitra and Madhu Kishwar was that the former wanted the continuance of S.295A IPC (India's blasphemy law) if only because the Indian society is volatile, whereas for the latter, a group of goondas claiming to represent any religion, cannot dictate what and how a law should be enforced and in what context. Chandan Mitra, however, suggested that journalists faced arrest because the Governments wanted to protect them from the wrath of the enraged public.
Madhu Kishwar referred to the 1986 law against indecent portrayal of women in the media as one instance of law coming to the aid of moral policing. She said when she opposed the law at the time of enactment, she was misunderstood, but the law appears to provide legitimacy to Hindu zealots.
Interestingly, all the three editors, who were recently arrested under Section 295A and later released were there - Basavaraj Swami, B.V.Seetharam and Ravinder Kumar - and they narrated their experiences. The question posed by the moderator of the discussion, Manoj Mitta, whether S.295A needs to be repealed or at least whittled down in view of its abuse seemed to have few takers. Manoj posed the question in the context of Britain repealing its blasphemy law last year, and Pakistan making its blasphemy provision draconian, by adding 295B and 295C to its Penal Code. The ingredients of Section 295A IPC(deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings) constitute a serious limitation on its use, though in practice, the authorities do not care to check whether these are satisfied, before it is invoked against anyone.
Siddharth Varadarajan, sharing his personal experience as a journalist, deplored the non-application of mind by the lower courts who invoke such legal provisions against anyone, be a journalist or a Union Minister (he was referring to registration of a case under S.153A IPC against Union Minister, Ms.Renuka Chowdhury, for referring to 'Talibanisation of Mangalore' in her reaction to the recent incidents there).
Justice J.S.Verma, one of the panelists, suggested there are legal remedies (civil) against wrong application of law, and an illegal prosecution can be challenged. Nandita Das, who shared her experiences with the Censor Board about her recent film, said we are becoming tolerant of intolerance, and we unwittingly give space to the so-called representatives of religions to speak on behalf of their co-religionists on the mainstream media. Even if there has been no conviction under S.295A, the process itself is the punishment, and this was a concern to all the panelists.
We, on this blog, have had an occasion to discuss the history and relevance of S.295A earlier. (This link takes you to the relevant posts on S.295A and this link takes you to the relevant High Court and Supreme Court judgments on S.295A IPC.)
Update: A detailed report on the event by Vivian Fernandes can be read on the FMP's site.