'Hypersensitivity in Religious Matters Has to Be Discouraged' Says Supreme Court

The bench was hearing an appeal against the ban on Kannada book Basava Vachana Deepthi by scholar, mystic and writer Mate Mahadevi.

Rally demanding a separate religion for Lingayats in Bidar

Supreme Court (left), Rally demanding a separate religion for Lingayats in Bidar, Karnataka (right). Credit: PTI, Twitter/@SUMEETRAO5

New Delhi: In the course of hearing an appeal against the ban on Kannada book, Basava Vachana Deepthi, imposed by the Karnataka government in 1998, the Supreme Court bench of Justices S.A. Bobde and L. Nageswara Rao on Tuesday observed that hypersensitivity in religious matters has to be discouraged.

The bench was responding to an observation by the senior counsel for the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha – an intervener in the case – R. Basant. Defending the ban on the book, Basant argued that since India is a multi-plural faith society, the responsibility is on the state to prevent writings that have the potential to outrage religious feelings.

The appellant in the case, who is the author of the banned book, Mate Mahadevi, is a scholar, mystic, writer and the first woman Jagadguru of the Lingayat community installed in 1970. She is the head of Basava Dharma Peetha and has been seeking independent religious status for the Lingayat sect. She began writing vachanas – a form of didactic poetry. Mahadevi maintains that Lingayat is a religion by itself, free from Hindu doctrines.

Among her many books is Basava Tatva Darshana, on the life and teachings of Basava, a 12th century social reformer and philosopher who fought against the caste system.

She has also been insisting that Veerashaiva Lingayat is one among the several sub-castes of Lingayat dharma. Her view was shared by rationalist M. M. Kalburgi, who was killed by assailants in 2015. Kalburgi had argued that the Lingayat tradition is non-Hindu in spirit.

Also read: Making Sense of the Lingayat vs Veerashaiva Debate

Mahadevi has also opposed the proposal to declare Bhagavad Gita a national text. She had said that the constitution, which promises justice to all, is the supreme document of the country and there was no need to declare any particular document or book the national text.

The Karnataka government had banned her book in 1998 under Section 95 of the CrPC. Her book, which she self edited and published, contains the vachanas of Lord Basaveshwara and not her own vachanas. Her contention is that Lord Basaveshwara, the founder of Lingayath Dharma and Isthalinga, has extensively used the word ‘Lingadeva’, which no other sharana has used and hence it is easier to identify the vachanas of Basaveshwara by the word ‘Lingadeva’.

She maintains that the word ‘Lingadeva’ conveys great respect, honour and reverence to Lord Basaveshwara and to say that it hurts religious feelings and is disrespectful to the lord, is false.

She argued that the state government’s order banning the book infringed her fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of expression. Forfeiture of the book two years after its publication – when thousands of copies had already been sold – and when devotees were accustomed to use the word ‘Lingadeva’ as mudrika in their worship, prayer and recitation, was illegal, she said.

Mahadevi does not dispute that Lord Basaveshwara, in his vachanas, used his pen name, Kudalasangamadeva. But she claims that she changed the pen name to Lingadeva so that it would be \ in consonance with his true philosophy. Her intention was noble, she says, as she wanted to preach the Basava philosophy. She admits that this may hurt the feelings of a certain class of conservative people, but she holds that the change had been introduced for a noble purpose.

On June 27, 2003, a three-judge bench of the Karnataka high court had however held that she had no right to substitute the word ‘Kudalasangamadeva’ with any other word as this amounts to tampering the author’s original script. “If it is changed, naturally it will affect the religious feelings and sentiments of a certain community that holds the said vachanas of Lord Basaveshwara in its original script in high esteem and reverence,” the high court had concluded.

The high court had agreed, that in order to constitute an offence under Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code, there must be a malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of a class of citizens. But in order to establish malice, it is not necessary for the state to prove that she bore any ill will or enmity against a certain class of people, the high court had held. If the wrongful act is done voluntarily, without a lawful excuse, malice may be presumed. The court said that she cannot speak her philosophy through another person held in high esteem by a class of society.

During the arguments on Tuesday, Justice Bobde suggested that her acts may constitute gross impropriety, adventurousness, or wild imagination, but certainly not insult or attempt to insult religion. The bench also cautioned the counsel not to confuse the words “hurt” and “insult”, as a book may hurt, but not insult the reader. She had no intention to insult, the bench said.

Basant argued that the litmus test of Section 95 CrPC is whether the publication has the potential to disturb public order. The intention of the publisher does not matter, he argued. To this, Justice Bobde emphasised the relevance of the “perception of strong mind” and said that the law should not mollycoddle people and the state should uphold freedoms.

The arguments are to continue on Wednesday.