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Tamil Nadu: Catholic priest spoke of Bharat Mata in ‘offensive terms’, HC refuses to quash FIR

🔴 The court listed several allegedly derogatory remarks from the priest's speech at a meeting organised at a church to pay homage to late activist Stan Swamy in Kanyakumari.

The court listed several allegedly derogatory remarks from his speech, delivered on July 18, 2021, at a meeting organised at a church to pay homage to late activist Stan Swamy in Kanyakumari. (File)

Partly quashing an FIR filed against a Catholic priest who was arrested last July over a purportedly derogatory speech, the Madras High Court on Friday ruled that his remarks against “Bharat Mata”, “Bhuma Devi” attract the offence of hurting religious sentiments under Section 295A of IPC, among others.

The court quashed four out of 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 organised at a church to pay homage to late activist Stan Swamy in Kanyakumari.

Justice G R Swaminathan of Madras High Court’s Madurai bench said: “I am certain that on the Judgment Day, God shall admonish the petitioner for having committed an un-Christian act.”

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On the petitioner’s argument comparing his tone with Dr B R Ambedkar, the court said, “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.” It said the shield of fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution would be available to them.

The court said, “We need Charles Darwin, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Narendra Dabholkar, M M Kalburgi and many such others in public life and discourse. When stand-up comedians Munawar Faruqui or Alexander Babu perform on stage, they are exercising their fundamental right to poke fun at others.

“Again, their religious identity is irrelevant. It is here (that) the ‘Who?’ and ‘Where?’ tests matter.”

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The judge noted that the speech was targeting many people.

The video of the speech, shared by many online, showed Ponnaiah purportedly mocking a state minister for his refusal to grant permission for worshipping centres to function during the pandemic. Ponnaiah, the video showed, reminded the minister in his speech, “you won, then it is the alms we Christians and Muslims have thrown to you. You won not because of your talents”.

He also purportedly targeted a local MLA who won on a BJP ticket and said that the MLA walks barefoot out of respect for Mother Earth, “but we wear shoes.”

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The order mentioned that he also made mocking, derogatory references to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In his petition to quash the FIR, Ponnaiah’s counsel submitted that he had already circulated a video expressing regret and clarified that his words were not intended to hurt religious sentiments of Hindus. Also, the defence counsel told the court, when it comes to protecting the fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, “the court should always lean in favour of free speech.”

But the court held that by referring to Bharat Mata and Bhuma Devi in the “most offensive terms”, the petitioner has prima facie committed offence under IPC Section 295A (hurting religious sentiments). “He is clearly pitting one group against the other,” the court said. “The distinction is made solely on the ground of religion. The petitioner repeatedly demeans the Hindu community.”

The court said the words uttered by Ponnaiah were “sufficiently provocative” and that “they reek of malice and supremacism.” On the question of whether the State can ignore such “incendiary statements”, as that of a “lunatic fringe,” the court noted that Ponnaiah is a “charismatic Catholic priest” who “commands a large following”.

The court said Ponnaiah’s speech prima facie attracts offences under IPC Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race…), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) and 505(2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes). It quashed Section 143, 269 and 506(1) of IPC and Section 3 of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, as they were “not made out.”

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Besides the arrest and a number of charges he faced, Ponnaiah also faced the heat of the Vatican over his remarks. A top source in Tamil Nadu Bishops Council (TNBC) told The Indian Express last October that Ponnaiah’s speech was one of the three major cases of aberrations (from the values of church) that forced the Apostolic Nunciature in India — the Vatican’s envoy to New Delhi — to issue a strongly worded message to the Tamil Nadu clergy, directing to stay away from holding positions in independent trusts and NGOs with a remark that many of them have become “financial and political power bases for the priests involved”.

First published on: 08-01-2022 at 08:54:34 pm
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