The Madras High Court in the case of Fr.P.George Ponnaiah v/s The Inspector of Police, Arumanai Police Station and Ors. refused to quash an FIR registered against the Catholican Diocese Priest for an inflammatory speech against Hindus.
A meeting was organized at Arumanai, a village in western Kanyakumari District, on 18th July, 2021 protesting the continued closure of churches in the District owing to pandemic-induced lockdown. The entire speech was video recorded and widely circulated in the social media. In the said video, the petitioner Fr.P.George Ponnaiah is seen and heard claiming that the network of Catholic priests was tapped by him and his associates to canvass votes in favour of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam which won the recently concluded Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly election. He mocked the Minister for Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department. After such boasting, he then directed his ire at Shri.M.R.Gandhi who was elected as MLA on a BJP ticket. Shri.M.R.Gandhi is known to walk barefoot out of respect for Mother Earth. He attacked the Prime Minister and the Home Minister by holding out a grim prophecy.
The counsel appearing for the petitioner at the outset pointed out that the petitioner had circulated a video expressing his regret and clarifying that his words were not intended to hurt the religious sentiments of the Hindus. He submitted that the offending speech must be read in its entirety. If so done, one can conclude that the petitioner only wanted to voice his feelings in support of minority rights and interests and that he had no intention to create disharmony or enmity between two groups.
Advocate Sricharan Rangarajan, appearing for one of the intervenors submitted that the value of free speech in a particular case must be measured in specifics. Not all types of speech have an equal value. One cannot be permitted to give vent to hate speech.
Advocate Ms.Victoria Gowri, refuted the contention of the petitioner’s counsel that Bharat Mata is not a legal entity by referring to the verse occurring in Vishnupurana composed in 400 BCE..
The Single judge bench of Justice G.R.Swaminathan noted that it is too much for the petitioner to be compared with revered leaders like Dr.Ambedkar. For that matter, a critical or even a harsh statement pertaining to religion or religious beliefs coming from a rationalist or a reformist or an academic or an artist would stand on a different footing altogether. The shield of fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution under Article 19(1)(a) would be available to them.
“An evangelist like the petitioner cannot claim a similar privilege. He cannot insult or outrage others’ religion or their religious beliefs and still claim immunity from the application of Section 295A/153A/505(2) of IPC. This is because he views the other religionists as a constituency to be poached. He cannot be called a disinterested or neutral commentator. The targeted religionists are bound to take offence as they fear potential harm to their interests and well-being,” the court said.
In light of the above arguments the court held that the offending speech of the petitioner prima facie attracts the offences under Sections 153A, 295A and 505(2) of IPC. However, the offences under Section 143, 269 and 506(1) of IPC and Section 3 of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 are not made out.
The court quashed the FIR to the limited extent as far as the petitioner is concerned and partly allowed the criminal original petition.