The Indian Penal Code was originally written by Thomas Babington Macaulay, the colonial ideologue now better known for his 1835 “Minute on Education,” which proposed teaching Shakespeare and Milton in India to create a class of ersatz Englishman – a charter text for colonial mimicry. Written immediately after the “Minute,” the Code expressed a parallel pedagogic project. It would turn Indians into “manly” British subjects (Macaulay’s adjective), including by training them to moderate their excitable feelings. Here, law serves more than a strictly juridico-legal function. It does pedagogic work, becoming part of the apparatus of colonial governmentality. It operates via the education of “affect”.

Macaulay’s 1837 draft Code responded directly to early 19th century British blasphemy trials. In 1833, Macaulay proposed to Parliament a means of reconceptualising blasphemy as an affective crime. In India, he implemented that proposal. His Code did not include a blasphemy law. Instead, it criminalised “wounding the religious feelings of any person.”

That language became law in 1860 as Section 298. In 1927, it was supplemented by 295A. These colonial statutes were part of the same entangled history as the 1883 Ramsay ruling, which similarly redefined blasphemy as an affective crime. In both Britain and India, “religious feelings” were a proxy for violence. “Blasphemy,” as a Victorian guide to libel law put it, is “an outrage on men’s religious feelings, tending to a breach of the peace.” 40 years later, 295A would use nearly identical language. In this phraseology, the meaning of “religious feelings” is overdetermined. To speak of “outraging religious feelings” is to indicate one feeling in particular: outrage. In the lead-up to the passage of 295A, a colonial bureaucrat offhandedly remarked that the “unfortunate state of feeling” between Hindus and Muslim regularly results in “deplorable outbreaks of passion.” This was not just euphemism – when it came to religion, passion meant violence, and violence, passion. Laws like 295A were designed to prevent such passions from forming.

The dark irony is that they probably just intensified them, with law’s repressive or censorial function perversely inciting a profusion of forbidden speech. Polemicists learned to speak law’s language, alleging that their “religious feelings” had been outraged, and thus performatively constituting those feelings in the very act of transmitting them to others. “Religious feelings,” then, were not something external to law that the colonial state could step in to manage. They grew along the trellis of law, taking shape around the bureaucratic state apparatus. This was education of a kind – just not the kind lawmakers said they intended. Law contained the script for communal violence. It educated its subjects in outrage.

All law carries the implicit threat of physical violence, it being the modern state’s monopoly on legitimate violence – its ability to arrest, imprison, or kill – that lends its words the “force of law.” In colonial situations, law’s implicit force tends to be strongly racialised. In British India, for instance, the force of law undergirded the mundane acts of white violence that were a commonplace feature of social life. “Disorderly” whites, in their very bodies, quoted the racialised state, thus arrogating its implicit power – and undermining its ability to symbolise the rule of law. Colonial officials found various ways to disavow such violence. One important tactic was displacing “state” violence onto Indian “society” as religious conflict, thus refusing to see the state’s role in constituting Hindu-Muslim communalism.

In the 18th century, one spoke of passions, sentiments, and affections – philosophical terms that conjoined the mental to the moral, often with theological valence. In the early 19th century, this moral lexicon was partly displaced by the word “emotion”, which previously had denoted political or meteorological unrest; now it was redeployed as a scientising term for describing the human mind. Its popularisers included James and John Stuart Mill, key patrons of the Indian Penal Code. These shifting English-language concepts shaped developments in South Asian vernacular languages. For example, an Urdu-language treatise on modern psychology like Abdul Majid Daryabadi’s Falsafa-e Jazbat (The philosophy of emotions, 1914) separated the emotional from the moral, a sharp departure from older discourses on civility or the “polishing of ethics” (tahzib ul-akhlaq). These concept histories also inflected colonial jurisprudence. In 1915, a lower court in north India held that because religion is “rooted in the emotions and sentiments,” religious arguments are pointless. They never change minds. They only hurt feelings.

This was the affective structure into which [a Hindu tract titled] Rangila Rasul was launched in 1924. The tract satirises the Prophet Muhammad. It also explicitly contrasts Muhammad with paragons of male celibacy: the Buddha, Jesus, and Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the religious society that published the tract, the Arya Samaj. “Even in a very, very old philosopher like me, feelings are stirred up when my women or religion is insulted,” remarked a member of the 1927 Legislative Assembly when pondering such polemics. His comment neatly distills the cultural logic of late colonial secularism – this secularism’s religious feelings were perhaps specifically the feelings of men, whose excitable bodies became sites for the articulation of various ethico-political discourses on self control or self-rule.

They were also caste-inflected feelings. Not incidentally, Arya Samajists were prominent advocates of caste reform, conducting shuddhi or purification ceremonies that ritually transformed Dalits, Muslims, and others (including, at various points, Europeans and East Africans) into savarna Hindu – thus simultaneously affirming and unsettling the caste order.

Such rhetoric did not disappear after 1927. Stereotyped depictions of hypersexualised, Muslim masculinity remain alarmingly familiar in the 21st century India. Neither did the Indian Penal Code disappear. It remains law across the countries of former British India (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar). If the Code’s religious feelings are simultaneously intimate and official – shaping the affective reactions of particular bodies by placing those bodies in a legal frame – then they are also simultaneously local and geopolitical, linked to empire as an affective architecture designed to organise bodies and their conduct at a global scale.

Excerpted with permission from Slandering the Sacred: Blasphemy Law and the Shaping of Indian Secularism, J Barton Scott, Permanent Black and Ashoka University.