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Indian Idol


Austin Dacey

June 25, 2012

The case against Sanal Edamaruku reveals the inherent flaws in legally protecting “religious feelings.”

Sanal Edamaruku at Velankanni in Mumbai. Image by New Humanist.

Like all proofs, the recent demonstration by the Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku that a statue of the crucified Jesus at the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni in Mumbai was not miraculously producing holy water from its toes but rather venting backed-up wastewater by means of capillary action does not compel one to accept its conclusion. It compels one to accept its conclusion or to reject one of its premises. Either it is no miracle or God is an iconoclast with a wicked sense of humor.

After criminal complaints were filed against Edamaruku by The Catholic Secular Forum and Maharashtra Christian Youth Forum under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes “insults or attempts to insult the religious or the religious beliefs” of any group with the “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings,” some international media observers framed the story as a case of blasphemy against a supernatural belief.

As with the waters of Mumbai, the real story is a bit murkier but it is also more interesting. Catholic leaders and organizations have distanced themselves from the miracle claims of the local laity. Instead they insist that the request for a police investigation of Edamaruku (currently taking shelter in Finland to avoid a pre-trial arrest) had nothing to do with his debunkery. It was rather a legal response to “objectionable” and “gratuitous” remarks about Catholic belief that he made during two discussions of the Irla case broadcast live on March 5 and 10 on the TV9 television network and for which he has refused to apologize. The rationalist found himself in the middle of a debate about the nature of idolatry.

The Skeptic on the Cross

In a written statement, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mumbai, Agnelo Gracias, explained that the Church “has NOT made any pronouncement” on whether the dripping cross has a supernatural cause. “There is a lengthy scientific process that has to be undergone before any official pronouncement is made. It is quite possible that the dripping water may have a natural explanation.” He then went on to address Edamaruku’s on-air assertions that “the Pope or the Church is against Science,” that “the dripping Cross has been created by priests who are out to make money,” and that the Church advocates “worship of images.”

“There is a difference between honoring a thing and making it divine, something to be worshipped,” Gracias’ statement argued. “We respect and honor the Scriptures of any religion not because the books are in themselves divine, but because they have a special significance for the adherents of that religion. We honor a cross because it is for us a reminder of the love of Jesus who died for us.”

Facing a panel of outraged critics on the March 10 broadcast, Edamaruku was repeatedly challenged to “prove” his statements, including this accusation of idolatry. Though he scarcely got a word in over the alternately Hindi and English torrent of opprobrium, which he seemed genuinely to enjoy, he did toss back this question: “When you put a candle burning in front of a statue, what does it mean? It’s not a worship?” He said he welcomed the chance to be heard and vindicated in a court of law and he has declared his intention to bring a challenge to Section 295 before the Supreme Court.

Subtle and Malicious

India’s laws against blasphemy and religious insult were introduced under British colonial rule. The Indian Penal Code was drafted in 1837 by the Indian Law Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay and adopted in 1860 after a period of review and intense debate. The Code would go on to influence colonial governments across the globe.

Many judges and Christian missionaries in India argued for removing or significantly modifying the so-called offenses relating to religion. As one commentator put it, “it is almost impossible to convert a sincere or ardent votary of any faith without wounding his religious feelings in the early stages of the process.” So, “if it is admitted that attempts at conversion from one faith to another ought not to be punished in British India, then the wounding of religious feelings ought not to be punished when the wound is inflicted with that legitimate object.” Even sarcasm “is often the only answer that can be given to positions too absurd to be gravely argued.”

In response to such objections, the framers of the Code placed their faith in the discretion of judges: “it is not the impression of the offended party that is to be admitted to decide whether the words uttered deserve to be considered as insulting; and whether they were uttered with the deliberate intention of insulting; these are points to be determined upon cool and calm consideration of the circumstances by the Judge.” However, the subsequent history has vindicated the critics’ warnings. In practice, many subsequent judicial decisions on cases of peaceful speech suppressed under these laws have been arbitrary, biased, and unjust.

One such case from 1962 prefigures Edamaruku’s own. In it the Karnataka High Court overturned an acquittal of Henry Rodrigues, editor and publisher of The Crusader, a magazine that attacked Roman Catholic belief from a broadly Biblical Christian perspective. “Honor to Mary or Dishonor?” asked one article. According to court records, it contained this passage:

Taken up with this infidel devotion to Mary, what a large number of people call upon a dead creature [for help]. The poor dead Mary neither hears nor sees them. If a thousand people, in a thousand cities use a thousand rosaries at the same time to say "Hail Mary, Hail Mary” to honor and worship a corpse, will a single dead creature be able to hear the prayers and honor uttered by the thousand people in the thousand cities in a thousand languages (which include the language of the dumb too)?1

The article went on to assert that miracles attributed to Mary were designed to swindle money from parishioners.

The lower court granted that such language could be considered abusive and insulting to Catholics, but found no malicious intent. Rodrigues’ lawyers argued that Rodrigues—himself a self-identified Catholic—published this material “in a spirit to bring about reformation and out of a sincere conviction that certain practices followed by the Roman Catholics and certain superstitious beliefs entertained by them, are all wholly opposed to what is stated in the Holy Bible.”

In the matter of The Crusader, truth was supposed to be of no moment. As the court put it, “even a true statement may outrage religious feelings.” Likewise, if the matter of the dripping cross sees trial, truth will be no defense and so the outcome will not formally turn on whether Catholic idol-worshipping or science-bashing can be “proven.” What the judges will most likely think they will be doing in exercising the powers first granted to them by the colonial government is determining whether Edamaruku’s insult was made with malicious intent. But truth has a way of seeping imperceptibly back into the matter, as if by capillary action.

In State of Mysore v. Henry Rodrigues, the High Court, considering the very same evidence as had the lower court, arrived at the contrary finding of malice.

This is an allegation made, without any just or lawful excuse. Because, by no stretch of imagination can it be said that in worshipping and offering prayers to Mary, the followers of the Roman Church actually worshipped a corpse or a dead body. . . . There cannot be any doubt that the statement of the [defendant] . . . is one made without any lawful or just excuse and intended only to outrage the religious feelings of the followers of the Roman Catholic Church.

Apparently the judges could fathom no psychologically plausible motive other than malice, given the obvious unreasonableness of the defendant’s speech. But their prior belief in the unreasonableness of his speech must have come from their own understanding of what does and does not constitute idolatry. Evidently, Rodrigues held that that to attribute agency and address petitionary prayer to Mary is to invest with divinity a dead human being. By refusing to countenance this as a “just or lawful” reason for his insulting speech, the court in effect classified his religious beliefs as beyond reasonable imagination.

Several years earlier, S. Veerabadran Chettiar vs E. V. Ramaswami Naicker & Others, the Supreme Court weighed in on this matter. The case involved a man who shattered a clay figure of the Hindu god Ganesh in a public act of religious protest. Lower courts dismissed charges under Section 295—covering any act that “destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons”—on the grounds that the particular token of Ganesh’s image in question, while resembling those that were consecrated and worshipped by some Hindus, had not itself actually been consecrated and worshipped by anyone.2 The Supreme Court, claiming that the lower courts had “given much too restricted a meaning to the words ‘any object held sacred by any class of persons’,” found that an object held sacred could include “any objective representation of a similar kind” to that which is consecrated or worshipped.

The judges may well have been cool and calm, but impartial they were not. This is the fatal flaw in the legal standard of intentional outrage of religious feelings: It gives government authorities the opportunity and the right to determine which contestable moral and religious beliefs are more worthy of protection.

Do Rationalists Have Feelings?

Lord Macaulay well understood that the contemporaneous British blasphemy law, which safeguarded Christian belief per se, would be unworkable in the multi-faith Indian context. The legal standard calibrated to “religious feelings” or “religious hatred” continues to be attractive to many precisely because it promises to substitute a quasi-secular category of harm to individual persons for a religious category of disrespect to a deity or dogma; to replace spiritual blasphemy with personal blasphemy, as I call it in The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights.

However, the history of the Indian Penal Code illustrates that the quasi-secular standard of personal blasphemy does not prevent invidious discrimination on the basis of religious content. Neither does it remove a more basic structural inequality. The law of personal blasphemy comes to the defense of “religious” feelings but provides no equal protection for the sensibilities of secular persons of conscience or adherents of unrecognized minority faiths. Under the Indian Penal Code, rationalists like Sanal Edamaruku might as well have no feelings.

This inherent failure of equal treatment under the law is one powerful reason why we should welcome any challenge to this colonial-era law in secular democratic India and to similar laws wherever they are found.


1. State of Mysore v. Henry Rodrigues (1962) 2 Cr LJ 564.

2. S. Veerabadran Chettiar v. E. V. Ramaswami Naicker & Others (1958) AIR 1032, 1959 SCR 1211.

Austin Dacey

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Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.