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24 April 2017 Editorial


24 APRIL 2017

Tale of two sections

On vexatious criminal prosecution

It’s time 295A and 153A of the IPC are revisited, to end vexatious criminal prosecution

The Supreme Court has intervened to spare cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni the ordeal of facing a criminal trial for allegedly insulting the Hindu religion by being featured in the likeness of a deity on the cover of a business magazine. The court quashed a criminal complaint filed against him in Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, a provision that makes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings” a punishable offence. The court said there was no deliberate intent on the part of the cricketer or the magazine to hurt religious sentiments. It drew upon the interpretation given to Section 295A by a Constitution Bench as early as in 1957 that it only “punishes the aggravated form of insult to religion when it is perpetrated with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of that class”. It is a matter of satisfaction that the highest court intervenes from time to time to stymie attempts by those claiming that their religious sentiments are offended by some act or remark of celebrities and dragging them to courts in different parts of the country. Judicial relief does come in the end, but the bitter truth is that the process is the punishment; it is time our lower courts stop taking reflexive cognisance of trivial or vexatious cases filed on the basis that the religious, caste or cultural sensitivities of some group have been offended.

In essence, Section 295A is a thinly disguised blasphemy law — the only difference being that it is ‘secular’ insofar as it applies to all religions or all forms of religious insult. A close cousin of this provision is another much misused section of the IPC — 153A. Intended to punish those who promote enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence and language, and doing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony, this section has been employed to harass writers and artists and cast a chill on free expression. The problem with insult laws, irrespective of the form they assume, is that they are inherently subjective. There is no guessing what causes insult/offence/hurt to people, leaving it open for such provisions to be blatantly misused. In this respect, Section 295A and 153A resemble our controversial contempt of court law — there is no saying what will scandalise a judge and therefore no saying when and for what contempt may be invoked. The two IPC provisions encourage the creation of what novelist Monica Ali described as a “marketplace of outrage” — an economy that feeds on anger and hostility. They need to be read down, their scope narrowed in a way that moral vigilantes and those who affect an emotional victimhood can no longer exploit the law to serve their narrow chauvinistic ends.


At war with itself

On Taliban advances in Afghanistan

Afghanistan and its allies need a coherent, gritty plan to roll back Taliban advances

The attack on a military base in Afghanistan on Friday, in which at least 140 people, mostly unarmed soldiers, died, speaks volumes about the state of security in the war-ravaged country. It was the deadliest attack by the Afghan Taliban since they were ousted from power in 2001. The 209th Army Corps base in Balkh province that was targeted is the army’s northern headquarters, responsible for security in nine of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. By running over such a fortified structure, the Taliban are effectively challenging the professionalism, resolve and resources of the entire force. Over the last few years, the Taliban had lost two of their topmost leaders. Besides, there were reports of factionalism and infighting within the group after the death of Mullah Omar. Yet, the Taliban made steady and substantial gains in the civil war over the last couple of years, since most American troops withdrew from Afghanistan as part of the drawdown plan. Now the group controls or has influence in more than half the country. In recent years it had carried out multiple attacks on government buildings, including the Parliament building, sending a clear message to the government and its international backers that there is no place in Afghanistan that lies outside the Taliban’s range.

Each time such an attack takes place, the Afghan government issues a statement on terror and vows to continue fighting. But despite these assurances, there is no real progress visible on the ground. Last year alone, more than 6,700 members of the Afghan security forces were killed, the highest since 2001. High casualties destroy the morale of the troops and erode the public’s faith in the country’s institutions, which already have a reputation of being highly corrupt. Kabul’s erratic and sometimes incoherent responses to the Taliban threat also expose its lack of conviction. Its overall security approach, as the latest attacks suggest, is in a shambles. The armed forces are not able to stall the Taliban’s advances. Its political reforms and attempts to reach out to the rural populace get nowhere as the Taliban are expanding their hold in the countryside. Even the attempts to reach a negotiated settlement were counterproductive, given the lack of cooperation from Pakistan and the Taliban’s refusal to make any meaningful compromise. But why would the Taliban compromise at a time when they think they’re making gains in the war? In order to forge a long-term political solution, the Afghan government first needs to alter the balance of power on the ground; and for that it needs international support. The U.S. would do well to help the Afghan security forces craft a credible, sustainable military strategy and provide them more resources and training to take on the Taliban. Theatrics such as dropping the biggest non-nuclear bomb in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan may make headlines, but, as last week’s attack suggests, they hardly deter the militants.

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