Priest’s remarks on Bharat Mata prima facie promote enmity, says HC

‘The words are provocative and reek of malice and supremacism’

The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on Friday held that certain remarks made by Priest George Ponniah on Bharat Mata at a meeting in Arumanai in Kanniyakumari district prima facie amounted to deliberate/malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings promoting enmity.

Justice G.R. Swaminathan observed that the Earth was worshipped as Bhooma Devi. She took the form of Bharat Mata. He said there was absolutely no need to mount a visceral attack on the religious beliefs of the Hindus.

A reading of the petitioner’s speech as a whole did not leave any one in doubt that his target was the Hindu community. He was putting them on one side and Christians and Muslims on the other. The distinction was made solely on the ground of religion. “Bhooma Devi is considered a Goddess by all believing Hindus. I use the expression “believing” because, even materialists, rationalists and non-believers can also be counted as Hindus… Bharat Mata evokes a deeply emotional veneration in a very large number of Hindus,” the judge said.

The words uttered by the petitioner were sufficiently provocative and they reeked of malice and supremacism. The question was whether the State could ignore such incendiary statements as that of a lunatic fringe, the judge asked.

A critical or even a harsh statement pertaining to religion or religious beliefs coming from a rationalist, reformist, an academic or an artist would stand on a different footing altogether. The shield of the fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution would be available to them.

On the other hand, an evangelist like the petitioner could not claim a similar privilege. He could not insult or outrage others’ religion or their religious beliefs. This was because he viewed the other religionists as a constituency to be poached.

The State could not remain a mute spectator in such situations. To uphold the sanctity of the Constitution and maintain public order, the strong arm of law would have to come down heavily on those who sought to disrupt communal peace and amity.

The court was hearing the petition filed by the priest in Kanniyakumari district, seeking quashing of the FIR registered against him under various Sections of the Indian Penal Code. In July 2021, the priest had made certain remarks on Bharat Mata, the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister.

The court partly allowed the petition and held that offences for unlawful assembly, negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life, criminal intimidation under the IPC and offences under the Epidemic Diseases Act were not made out.

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