Partial cancellation of a FIR filed against a Catholic priest who was arrested last July for an allegedly derogatory speech, the Madras High Court ruled on Friday that his remarks against “Bharat Mata”, “Bhuma Devi” attracted the offense of attacking religious feelings under the article. 295A of the IPC, among others.
The court overturned four of the seven charges against P George Ponnaiah.
Hearing Ponnaiah’s petition to quash the FIR, the court listed several allegedly derogatory remarks from his speech, delivered on July 18, 2021, at a meeting held at a church to honor late activist Stan Swamy in Kanyakumari.
Judge GR Swaminathan of Madurai Bench of Madras High Court said: “I am sure that on the day of judgment God will rebuke the petitioner for committing a non-Christian act.
On the petitioner’s argument comparing his tone with Dr BR Ambedkar, the court said: “A harsh statement regarding religion or religious beliefs coming from a rationalist or a reformist or an academic or a artist would stand on a different footing. ” He said that the shield of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution would be accessible to them.
The court said: “We need Charles Darwin, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and many more in public life and speech. When comedians Munawar Faruqui or Alexander Babu perform on stage, they are exercising their fundamental right to make fun of others.
“Again, their religious identity doesn’t matter. This is where the ‘Who?’ and or?’ testing is important.
The judge noted that the speech was aimed at many people.
Video of the speech, shared by many netizens, showed Ponnaiah allegedly mocking a minister of state for refusing to allow worship centers to operate during the pandemic. Ponnaiah, the video showed, reminded the minister in his speech: “You won, so this is the alms that we Christians and Muslims have thrown at you. You did not win because of your talents ”.
He also reportedly targeted a local MP who won on a BJP ticket and said the MP was walking barefoot out of respect for Mother Earth, “but we are wearing shoes.”
The order mentioned that he had also made derogatory and derogatory references to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In his request to quash the FIR, Ponnaiah’s lawyer argued that he had previously released a video expressing his regret and clarified that his comments were not intended to hurt the religious feelings of Hindus. In addition, the defense lawyer told the court, when it comes to protecting the fundamental right guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution, “the court should always favor of freedom of expression ”.
But the court found that by referring to Bharat Mata and Bhuma Devi in ”the most offensive terms”, the petitioner had prima facie committed an offense under section 295A of the IPC (attack on religious feelings) . “He clearly pits one group against another,” the court said. “The distinction is made only on the basis of religion. The petitioner repeatedly belittles the Hindu community.
The court said Ponnaiah’s words were “sufficiently provocative” and “they reek of wickedness and supremacy.” On whether the state can ignore such “inflammatory statements,” such as that of a “whimsical fringe,” the tribunal noted that Ponnaiah is a “charismatic Catholic priest” who “commands a large audience.”
The court declared that Ponnaiah’s speech attracted prima facie offenses under Articles 153A of the IPC (fostering enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race …), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting their religion or religious beliefs) and 505 (2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or malice between classes). He struck down Sections 143, 269 and 506 (1) of the IPC and Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, as they were “not established”.
Besides the arrest and a number of charges he faced, Ponnaiah also faced Vatican heat because of his remarks. A prominent source from the Tamil Nadu Bishops Council (TNBC) told The Indian Express last October that Ponnaiah’s speech was one of the top three cases of aberrations (relative to the values of the church) that have forced the Apostolic Nunciature in India – the Vatican envoy to New Delhi – to send a strong message to the clergy of Tamil Nadu, asking them not to occupy positions in independent trusts and NGOs, noting that many of them they have become “bases of financial and political power for the priests involved”.