'Freedom of Speech at Stake': HC Cautions Cops Over Plaints of Outraging Religious Sentiment

The court made this observation while quashing an FIR filed in 2019 against four musicians over allegedly insulting the Hindu religion.

New Delhi: The Bombay high court recently quashed a first information report (FIR) filed in 2019 against members of an art-rock live performance project “Dastaan Live” over allegedly outraging religious sentiments, Bar and Bench reported.

A bench of Justices M.S. Sonak and M.S. Jawalkar observed that “the police should be sensitive when registering the offence of outraging religious sentiments as freedom of speech and expression is at stake,” the report added. The court was hearing pleas by the members of the band for quashing the FIR filed against them.

On December 18, 2019, four musicians of the rock band were arrested by Panaji police for allegedly insulting the Hindu religion during their performance at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, said news reports.

According to the Indian Express, the artists were booked under the Indian Penal Code’s Section 295 (hurting religious sentiments) following a complaint filed by Supreme Court advocate Venkata Krishna Kunduru. He alleged that the lyrics of the songs included “Om, with abusive language…”, the report added.

The artists – Sumant Balakrishnan, Anirban Ghosh, Shiv Pathak and Nirmala Ravindera – were later granted bail after they deposited surety of Rs 20,000.

Also read: Insults to Religion Without Deliberate Intention Not Offence Under Section 295a IPC: Tripura HC

According to Bar and Bench, the court also observed that “the complainant precisely chose to pick out sentences or words on the basis of which a vague complaint was filed which did not even spell out the basic ingredients of Section 295A of IPC”.

“According to us, there was no justification whatsoever for the police inspector to hurriedly register such an FIR… The police authorities are expected to be quite sensitive in such matters, because, what is at stake is the freedom of speech and expression. Therefore, unless the complaint discloses the ingredients of the offense under section 295-A of IPC, it is not expected of the police authorities to rush and register an FIR in such cases,” the court order said.

The song against which the complaint was filed is called the ‘Mantra Kavita’. It’s composed by two-time Sahitya Akademi Award winner poet Vaidyanathan Mishra.

The petitioners contended that their band did not modify the lyrics of the song and they were only performing their own musical adaptation of the poem.

According to the report, advocate Shivan Desai, representing the petitioners, submitted that the complainant attempted to “misinterpret” the composition and alleged blasphemy. He argued that the complainant was taking lines out of context to claim that the song hurt the sentiments of “hundred crores of India and few million abroad”.

Also read: The Constitutional Case Against India’s Blasphemy Law

Additional public prosecutor Pravin Faldessai submitted that the petitioners need to explain why this particular composition was chosen and why there was no deliberate and malicious intention to hurt religious feelings of the Hindus.

He added that the investigating officers could not gather evidence to prove the malicious intention due to a stay on further proceedings by this court. He further said this was a premature stage to quash an FIR.

The court deduced that “the allegations in the complaint do not remotely disclose ingredients of Section 295-A of the IPC”. It also added it was not justified to call the musicians to the police station for an apology or to arrest them.