Hours after defence analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra apologised to an all-party committee of legislators of the Odisha Assembly on Tuesday for allegedly derogatory remarks about the Sun temple in Konark, he was arrested in another case of hurting religious sentiments: this time for tweets from a year ago about the Hindu deity Jagannath, whose temple in Puri is seen as Odisha’s most important religious site.

The charges against Iyer-Mitra relate to making obscene acts or words in public, blasphemy, promoting enmity between groups and defamation, among others. The case, registered on September 20, is the second criminal charge against him. The first case had also been registered on September 20, after the defence analyst posted an online video in which he makes satirical remarks about the Konark temple.

Both cases shine a light on how a host of so-called hate speech laws in India can be used to shut down any speech the government considers inconvenient. For a democracy like India to police speech in such a manner makes little sense.

Satire versus religious sentiments

Iyer-Mitra’s troubles started on September 16 when he posted a video of himself at the Konark temple on Twitter, making remarks about the erotic sculptures at the temple complex. Soon after, he clarified on Twitter that his remarks were not to be taken literally:


As the comments led to an uproar in the Odisha Assembly, Iyer-Mitra reiterated that his video was not meant to be taken seriously. He tweeted on September 17:

On September 20, the Assembly moved a privilege motion against Iyer-Mitra, demanding that action be taken against him for hurting religious sentiments. He was arrested the same day in New Delhi, granted bail hours later and asked to join the police investigation in Bhubaneswar on September 28.

On the day he was arrested, a second case was also registered against him for his tweets about the deity Jagannath from more than a year ago. On September 13, 2017, Iyer-Mitra had tweeted:

His lawyer Nikhil Mehra told Scroll.in that his client had made the comment simply as part of a light-hearted conversation about how Bengalis and Odiyas fight over common cultural symbols.

Draconian hate speech laws

Some have said the action against Iyer-Mitra is a result of the political rivalry between Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and Baijayant Panda, a former MP of Patnaik’s ruling Biju Janata Dal. Iyer-Mitra is reported to be a friend of Panda and had flown in the politician’s helicopter in September when it was seized by the police, allegedly for flying low over the ecologically sensitive Chilika lake. Panda had then accused the state government of fabricating changes against him.

However, the arrest of Iyer-Mitra also highlights the reality of India’s hate speech laws, which are arbitrary enough to be used for partisan reasons.

India is one of the few democracies to still have a blasphemy law in 2018 – Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. In 2014, a Muslim cleric in Gujarat was arrested under this section for allegedly insulting the festival of Navratri. In 2017, a college professor in Mumbai was held for allegedly insulting 17th-century Maratha king Shivaji. The provision has been widely applied in the context of works of art and scholarship. American academic Wendy Doniger, painter MF Husain and actor Priya Prakash Varrier are among those who have faced cases under India’s blasphemy law.

In addition, India has a law that directly criminalises hate speech – Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code – as well as laws against sedition and criminal defamation. For example, between 2011 and 2016, newspapers in Tamil Nadu were routinely sued for criminal defamation for publishing reports critical of the government led by former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. In September, the Uttar Pradesh Police booked Congress social media chief Divya Spandana for sedition after she allegedly called Prime Minister Narendra Modi a thief.

Falling short of democracy

There are other controls on speech. The Union government retains draconian controls over the internet via the Telegraph Act, 1885, and the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933. Between May 2017 and April 2018, India had the highest number of internet shutdown for any country in the world, according to a Unesco report.

The Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act, 1995, gives the state a similar level of control over television news. Moreover, no film can be released in India without first being vetted by the Union government.

So hegemonic are ideas of state control that neither Parliament, nor the Union government, nor the Supreme Court have sought to strike down these controls on free speech.

Even while India – justifiably – claims pride in being the world’s largest democracy, it must remember that voting alone does not create a democracy. The liberties that allow for democracy include day-to-day freedoms for citizens to live their lives free of state harassment. Of this, the freedom to express oneself is critical. That India has now arrested a person for hurting religious sentiments over satirical tweets only serves to diminish the country’s status as a true democracy.