Monday 17 January 2022
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Status quo in religious demography must be maintained: Madras HC

Refusing to quash an FIR registered against the Catholic Diocese Priest P George Ponnaih for an inflammatory speech against Hindus, the Madras High Court made some stark observations about religious conversions in the on 7 January. Justice GR Swaminathan of the court observed that it was important to maintain the status quo in religious demography.

“If there is a serious subversion of the status quo, calamitous consequences may follow”, the judge said. Accepting that an individual citizen’s choice to change religion is protected by the constitution and must be respected, the judge said that religious conversions could not be accepted as a “group agenda”.

The Madras High Court said, “India was partitioned on the ground of religion. Millions died in the ensuing riots. That is why our founding fathers consciously adopted secularism as the guiding principle of the new republic…Freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and propagate one’s religion was made a fundamental right. But the tryst with destiny can be achieved only if the multicultural character of the Indian society continues to remain. In other words, the status quo in the matter of religious demography has to be maintained. If there is a serious subversion of the status quo, calamitous consequences may follow.”

Police in Arumanai had booked the Christian priest for his speech at a meeting convened for paying homage to Stan Swamy. Referring to the offences under which he was charged, the court observed that the priest could not insult or outrage another religion and still claim immunity from the application of Section 295A, 153A and 505(2) of IPC.

The court, however, quashed the offences under Section 143, 269 and 506(1) of IPC and Section 3 of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897.

Citing legendary lawyer B Sen’s views on Christianity, the judge quoted some excerpts from his autobiography, observing that conversion to another religion out of personal conviction was a choice that should be respected. The following was the quote:

… Dileep Kumar became AR Rahman. Yuvan Shankar Raja is now a Muslim. One of the sons of T Rajendar has embraced Islam. These are perfectly understandable and no exception can be taken. But religious conversions cannot be a group agenda. Our constitution speaks of composite culture. This character has to be maintained. The clock of history can never be put back. But the status quo that obtains in the year 2022 as regards religious demographic profile may have to be maintained.

‘Incendiary Statements As That Of A Lunatic Fringe’, ‘Demographic Inversion Of Kanyakumari’

“…The question is whether the state can ignore such incendiary statements as that of a lunatic fringe”, the bench commented.

Justice Swaminathan held that the provocative statements made by a charismatic Catholic priest commanding a large following at a district like Kanyakumari dominated by Christians (despite the Hindu significance of the place) could not be ignored by the state.

The court referred to an article written by Aravindan Neelakandan, a native of Kanyakumari on the issue of the changing demographics of District Kanyakumari. The Swarajya columnist, whose mother is a Christian, stated in the article that the religious demographics of the district had been subject to changes, and according to the 2011 Census, Hindus sank below the crucial 50%.

The court referred also to the recommendations made by Justice P Venugopal Commission that had been constituted following the communal riots that took place in the year 1982 at Mandaikkaadu in Kanyakumari.

The writer and the commission echo the same apprehensions, the court noted.

The court agreed with the proposition that there had been a demographic inversion in the said district of Tamil Nadu and the population of Hindus had shrunk to 48.5%. The court explained the reasons behind such an observation by referring to converted Hindus:

One can take judicial notice of the fact a large number of Scheduled Caste Hindus, though having converted to Christianity and professing the said religion, call themselves Hindus on record for the purpose of availing reservation. Such persons are called crypto-Christians. There was even a motion picture based on this theme (Rudra Thandavam). Out of courtesy, I refrain from mentioning the name of a Judge who belonged to such a category. There was even a writ petition challenging his status. Everyone pretended as if they did not know the truth. But when he died, he was buried as per Christian rites in a cemetery…

The court opined that this is the reason why the petitioner accused was overconfident in his speech about Christians reaching the figure of 72 per cent, though the Census figures paint a different picture.

FIR against the priest

The court observed that the Christian priest had projected Bharat Mata and Bhuma Devi as sources of infection and filth. Since it is a direct attack on the religious feelings of Hindus, Section 295A can be invoked, the court noted.

Bhuma Devi is considered a goddess by Hindus, the judge said.

I use the expression ‘believing’ because, even materialists, rationalists and non-believers also can be counted as Hindus. I may add tongue-in-cheek that even the great iconoclast and rationalist Periyar did not cease to be a Hindu. Bharat Mata evokes a deeply emotional veneration in a very large number of Hindus. She is often portrayed carrying the national flag and riding a lion. She is, to many Hindus, a goddess in her own right…

Justice GR Swaminathan

The court reasoned why Section 295 A would be applicable for the offensive portrayal of the goddess.

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