Ninety years ago, when communal tensions ran high, and riots were a common occurrence, Lala Lajpat Rai argued in the Punjab legislature that a proposed law that would empower the government to ban work that hurt the sentiments of any section of the population should not come in the way of “bona fide criticism, historical research and all that leads to the interpretation of religious texts in such a way as to lead to progressive reform in social matters". His underlying message was that social progress could be impeded if such a law were to be passed.

M.A. Jinnah was a member of the committee that was asked to draft the new piece of legislation. He said: “The fundamental principle that those who are engaged in historical works, those who are engaged in the ascertainment of truth, and those who are engaged in bona fide and honest criticisms of a religion shall be protected."

In an article published in March 2014, Shivprasad Swaminathan of the Jindal Global Law School cited J. Crerar, the home member, predicting that the kind of individual most likely to be prosecuted under the new legal provision would be “some obscure and scurrilous scribbler writing from some obscure den or pot-house in a bazaar". The misuse of such a law in the years ahead would prove him wrong.

The new provision became the infamous Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which says: “Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, 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 three years, or with fine, or with both". The history of Section 295A shows that it is not some scurrilous scribblers, but writers, filmmakers and scholars who have borne the brunt of censorship in India.

All this is worth remembering when threats of physical harm have been issued against the artistes involved in the new film Padmavati. The Rajasthan chief minister has written to the Union information and broadcasting minister that the film should not be released without cutting out the parts that some fringe groups are protesting against, and nobody in the Union government seems ready to stand up for the principle of artistic freedom. The warning issued by Lala Lajpat Rai way back in 1927 is worth reiterating right now.

No political party can claim a clean record on protecting the freedom of artists and scholars, so the current finger-pointing is more opportunistic rather than one based on core principles. Section 295A has no place in a liberal democracy, and governments have to use their might against groups that threaten violence. History tells us that tolerance of such groups is like a slippery slope. The inability to act, in effect, emboldens them to run amok.

Rewinding back to the decade when Section 295A was introduced can tell us a lot about why threats of violence should not be tolerated. In 1927, a book called Rangila Rasul, based on the personal life of the Prophet Muhammad, was published in Lahore. It led to threats against the life of its publisher by Muslim groups who said the book insulted the Prophet. These threats of violence came soon after Swami Shraddhanand was assassinated in 1926. The publisher of Rangila Rasul was stabbed to death by Ilm-Ud-Din, and what is worse is that his act was given legitimacy when Mohammad Iqbal spoke at the funeral of the assassin, who had been sentenced to death.

The same combination has been seen in several other episodes over the years—groups claiming to protect tribal pride; threats of violence against artistes; attacks on theatres, libraries and art exhibitions; silence from mainstream political parties; even acts that give legitimacy to such extremist groups. The pushback has to come from ordinary citizens who want access to books, films and works of art without intervention from unofficial censors who threaten violence.

Section 295A has no place in a modern republic that constitutionally guarantees individual freedom. It needs to go.

Should vigilante mobs be allowed to censor artists and writers in a modern republic like India? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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