A person with no sense of humour and no purpose in life is offended by a joke. He goes to the cops. The cops arrest the guy who had made the joke. It’s a story you have heard more than a few times before. It’s a story that you will hear multiple times in the future too.
Here are the details of this particular story: Kiku Sharda, a comedian appeared as Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in Zee TV’s year-ender show Jashn-E-Ummeed, aired on December 27. Someone in Kaithal (a district in northwestern Haryana with one of the lowest sex ratios in the country) took offence and filed a complaint against Kiku Sharda in the Civil Lines Police station of the district. The police jumped to action, sending a team to Mumbai, and collaborating with the Mumbai Police. According to Vilas Chavan, Senior Inspector in Aarey Police Station, Mumbai, the Haryana police team was lead by Investigation Officer Sub-Inspector Ishwar Singh. “We only assisted the Haryana police team in arresting the accused; investigations were entirely carried out by them,” said Chavan.
Chavan has rather legitimate reasons to distance himself from the investigations. The Kaithal police’s investigation has held Sharda guilty of hurting “religious sentiments”. They arrested Sharda under Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code, which pertains to “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. It states:
Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of 273 [citizens of India], 274 [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 4[three years], or with fine, or with both.
Pawan Insan, a spokesperson of the Dera Saucha Sauda, justified the complaint and the police action against the comedian. “Dera followers are within their constitutional ambit to file complaints against something [that they found] grossly offensive and derogatory and the police has acted within its constitutional ambit to arrest the person.” Speaking over the phone, Pawan said that “just because a person is an actor doesn’t concur immunity. We are all equal citizens under the law,” he asserted.
When asked if the Dera Sacha Sauda sees itself as a religion since Sharda has been arrested for hurting religious sentiments, Pawan insisted that the Sauda is a “confluence of all religions”. “We have been fundamentally opposed to wrongful definition of all religions.” But is Dera Sacha Sauda a religion? “It is a socio-spiritual movement but we haven’t given up on our religions – and gurus are part of the Hindu religion,” he argues.
While there has been much outrage over Kaithal Police’s action, the truth is that social media outrage won’t stop arbitrary arrests like these. We Indians are an incredibly sensitive lot, particularly in matters of our religious beliefs, and Section 295 A and a host of other laws that deal with “hate speech” lend legal legitimacy to our juvenile cantankerousness.
In June last year, Subramanian Swamy moved the Supreme Court challenging Section 295, among other hate speech-related laws. “It is submitted herein that in all these impugned sections, there is a presumption that such utterances, whether honest or not, do actually and invariably result in the commission of the offences per se. It is submitted that this is not correct,” his petition read.
What further magnifies the potential of misuse of random hate speech laws is even more arbitrary police action. Kaithal has been witness to some of the most grisly crimes, especially against women, in recent times, where the police have been mute spectators. Here, though, a team of cops was sent all the way to Mumbai to arrest an innocuous comedian doing his job in a matter of weeks of the complaint being lodged. The Deputy Superintendent of Kaithal police, Tekan Raj, who is overseeing investigations in the case, said he was in a meeting when we contacted him.
Hopefully, the meeting will help the cops get their priorities right.