The recent web series on the online platform Amazon Prime, by the name of Paatal Lok, has been critically praised by filmmakers across the country. Directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy and produced by Anushka Sharma, the crime thriller-cum-police procedural set mainly in Delhi makes for an engrossing watch, showing several facets of the world we live in, the sophisticated cities as well as the rustic villages. However, the grins and gaiety soon turned sour with glares and glowers as a case was filed against the producers for the using language and displaying scenes offensive to certain castes. However, this is hardly the first time such a case has been filed against filmmakers across the nation. The incident, however, does beg the question:
Do filmmakers have the freedom to portray reality on the screen or would they always be held prisoner by the sensibilities of the people? Where do we find the balance?
The Beginning of The Issue
The problems began soon after the release of the series. G.S. Dhillon, an advocate practising in the Punjab and Haryana High Court had written to a Police station in Punjab alleging that episode 3 of the series, titled ‘A History of Violence’ was made with the intention of communal disharmony. It was further alleged that the makers maliciously highlighted caste-based clashed in that particular episode, used a casteist slur and creates an atmosphere of enmity between the two castes in Punjab.
“Episode No.3 of the above-named internet series is sub-named as ‘A History of Violence’ is shown to be set in a village in Punjab. The accused have purposely and maliciously, with an intent of creating communal disharmony and caste-based clashes have shown two castes in bad light besides seriously defaming members of the Sikh community and hurting the religious feelings of Sikhs at large. The accused have used a caste-based slur namely ‘Manjaar’ again and again for a particular caste, which is derogatory and criminal and shown hate between the two castes namely ‘Jatt Sikh’.”
“Further encouraging violence, the boy from the said community is shown to have brutally murdered three boys from the other caste with a knife. The accused have glorified caste and religion-based hatred and violence. Thereafter around 10 turbaned Sikhs have been shown to have reached the house of the boy. Out of them, two have been shown to be ‘Amrit Dhari’ and all of them have been shown to have gang-raped the mother of the boy from the said community who killed three people. Thus, showing Sikhs in a very bad light and showing them as the oppression of society and women in particular.”
The complaint further states, “It is pertinent to mention here that the Sikh community has a history of protecting the feeble and incapable people, especially women from the times of Ahmed Shah Abdali and Nadir Shah. This portrayal of Sikhs as predators has caused immense unrest in the Sikh community and badly hurt the religious feelings of the Sikhs. The accused have also acted maliciously to promote enmity between the two peacefully co-existing castes of Punjab belonging to the same Sikh religion by calling members of one caste ‘Manjaar’ and creating hatred for the other community. This could lead to caste-based clashes and unrest in Punjab and weaken the brotherhood and communal harmony in the state.”
The complainant, for the aforementioned reasons, registered an FIR under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and Information and Technology Act against the production company, Clean Slate Films Pvt. Ltd.
And while this complaint makes it seem as if the filmmakers must be held liable for hurting the sentiments of the Sikh community, there are two sides to this pertinent issue. Where we are considering the sentiments of the people, we also have to consider the Freedom of Speech and Expression accorded by the Indian Constitution to the citizens of the country and the restrictions surrounding it.
Freedom of Speech and Expression
Article 19 (1)(a) of the Indian Constitution guarantees to all its citizens “the right to freedom of speech and expression”. Freedom of speech has been held to be basic and indivisible for a democratic polity, the citizen’s most cherished and sacred right, the “prized privilege”.
It has been observed in Printers (Mysore) Ltd. v. Asst. Commercial Tax Officer;
“Every free citizen has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public. Freedom to air one’s views is the lifeline of any democratic institution and any attempt to stifle, suffocate or gag this right would sound a death knell to democracy and would help usher in autocracy or dictatorship.”
There are certain restrictions to this right however, as provided in Article 19 (2). These are, namely, sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or about contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. It may thus be stated that the exercise of the right conferred by Article 19 (1)(a) carries “special duties and responsibilities”.
In light of the points raised in the complaint filed by advocate Dhillon, it would be prudent and relevant to discuss in detail ‘public order’ as provided in Article 19 (2). This ground was added by the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951 as a sequel to the Romesh Thaper case, wherein the Apex Court rejected the contention that public order was covered by the expression Security of State. The Court held that the concept of “public order” was wider than “security of the State”. The expression “public order” is synonymous with “public peace, safety and tranquillity.” The test for determining whether an act affects law and order or public order is to see whether the act leads to the disturbance of the current life of the community, or whether the act affects merely an individual, the tranquillity of the society being undisturbed.
One of the main provisions applicable in the plaint filed by G.S. Dhillon is that of Section 295A of the IPC. It states;
“Whoever, with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
Now, the provocative and outrageous remarks should be such that would be regarded by any reasonable man as grossly offensive and deliberately intended to outrage the feeling of any class of citizens of India. It must also be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the intent behind any such act was malicious.
In Sujata Bhadra v. State of West Bengal, the petitioner filed a petition for setting aside the order of forfeiture of a book ‘Dwikhandita’ written by Taslima Nasreen of Bangladesh. The alleged offending portion described the author’s own opinion as to the status of women in Bangladesh emanating from the adoption of Islam as a state religion. It was held by the Calcutta High Court that the book does not reflect any intention of outraging religious feelings to insult the religion or religious beliefs of that class of citizens and the intention of the author was neither deliberate nor malicious. The forfeiture of the book was set aside.
Paatal Lok is the most recent case in a slew of petitions filed against filmmakers, on account of hurting the religious sentiments of castes and communities. These provisions have been used countless times in recent cases, ranging from movies and web series to magazines and newspapers.
Recent Similar Cases
In 2013, criminal proceedings were initiated against cricketer M.S. Dhoni for hurting religious sentiments by being portrayed as “Lord Vishnu” on the cover of a business magazine. Despite a 1957 judgment of the SC that Section 295A could not be slapped on a person for unintentionally hurting religious sentiments, the rampant misuse of the penal provision persuaded the bench to clarify yet again the width and ambit of the legal position. The bench said:
“It is clear as crystal that Section 295A does not stipulate everything to be penalized and any and every act would tantamount to insult or attempt to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a class of citizens. It penalizes only those acts of insults or those varieties of attempts to insult the religion or religious belief of a class of citizens which are perpetrated with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of that class of citizens.”
In 2015, Aamir Khan- starrer PK was brought under the microscope by a PIL seeking directions to delete “objectionable” scenes, claiming that the contents of the film have hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus. In that case, the Delhi High Court observed that increasing cases of religious “intolerance” have to be “nipped in the bud” as the country can “ill-afford” that they spread like “wildfire”.
The bench of Chief Justice G Rohini and Justice R S Endlaw also observed that just as the Constitution protected the right of an artist to portray social reality in all its forms, seeing a film was a conscious choice of the spectator and those offended by the content or the theme of a particular film were free to avoid watching it. Quoting the Bench:
“We are unable to hold the film or any sequence thereof being contemptuous of the essential tenets and beliefs of Hindu religion or as promoting communal attitude. The said sequences have to be necessarily shown to illustrate the social evil prevalent.”
In this regard, it would be relevant to discuss the Netflix web series ‘Hasmukh’ and the ban sought on it for defaming and maligning Advocacy as a profession. The dialogue in question translates to – “This is the first city I have seen where even the thieves are rich. But out here they’re called lawyers. Your lawyers are the biggest scoundrels and thieves. These so-called upholders of law will never be brought to justice because they rape you with their pen. People say the law is blind. But I say the law is dirty because every lawyer carries a little stick in his hand.”
While dismissing the plea, the single Bench said, “The very essence of democracy is that a creative artist is given the liberty to project the picture of the society in a manner he perceives.”
Suggestions and Conclusion
All these cases present a similar situation. Section 295A has been used on countless occasions by castes and communities claiming that their religious sentiments have been hurt. The fact that there is no defence to it makes it even tougher for filmmakers and producers who want to portray the dark realities of society through the medium of movies and shows.
Paatal Lok has been attacked for displaying scenes which hurt the religious sentiments of the Sikh community, portraying them as violent and depicting clashes between the upper and lower castes in Punjab. However, what the director has portrayed in the series is nothing but the truth. There have been several incidents where lower caste people have been murdered and raped by ‘Jatt Sikh’, displaying the upper-caste supremacy in rural Punjab.
In 2017, after finding out that his wife’s mother belonged to the Dalit community, a Jatt Sikh committed suicide. Following this incident, his younger threatened to take the extreme step too if the widow is married to him or any cousin living in their native Khai village of that district.
In another case, a 55-year old Dalit Sikh woman, Sawinder Kaur, was tortured, stripped and tied to a tree in a village of Punjab because her nephew eloped with a girl from the same community.
In 2006, Bant Singh, a Dalit agrarian labourer and activist in Punjab was ambushed and brutally beaten by upper-caste Jatt men armed with iron rods and axes. He lost both his arms and a leg in the attack. His crime? Fighting to attain justice for his minor daughter who was brutally gang-raped by the same upper-caste men.
It is evident then that the violence against Dalit women in specific and the lower caste, in general, is very much prevalent in Punjab. The purpose of displaying such incidents on the screen is to make people aware of such oppression and garner empathy for their horrific treatment.
Filmmakers use their inherent right of freedom of speech and expression to display their perception of the world. It is clear that they cannot cater to everyone’s views and opinions. There will always be one community or another who will not agree to what is being portrayed on screen. But does that alone make it right to attempt to get these movies and shows banned?
Section 295A of the IPC attempts to protect the religious interests and beliefs of any class of citizens in the country. Admittedly it will be rather remiss to contend that the provision has no benefit at all. It does have utility in protecting the religious sentiments of the citizens when there are instances of people trying to disturb the tranquillity by deliberately and maliciously insulting their religious beliefs.
However, the very phrase ‘malicious and deliberate acts’ has such wide ambit that every act that offends the religious sentiments of any class can very well be construed to come under this head. It acts as an extreme measure which curbs the freedom of speech of artists and restrains them from showcasing their views to the general public. The broad ambit of Section 295A, which doesn’t even recognise truth as a defence, has made it a powerful tool in the hands of the intolerant.
Artists use the medium of their choice to put forth their emotions and views regarding any subject under the sun. Most times, they are realistic depictions of the happenings across the world and their criticism. However, should the artist be forced to moderate and appease the masses, merely because it hurts the religious sentiments of a class of people?
The answer is a hard NO.
The Judiciary must protect the rights of everyone and ensure that there is harmonious construction of laws. There cannot be a conflict between two laws and it needs to be ensured that their interpretation is such that each has a separate effect. There is an imminent need to limit and moderate the ambit of Section 295A before it completely takes over a citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Unless an act promotes enmity between the castes and communities to the point that there is communal discord, religion must not be placed above the Constitutionally-guaranteed Fundamental Right.
We as citizens have a duty too. Intolerance, especially religious intolerance in a country like ours, was, is and will always be a hindrance to progress in society. We cannot allow our sensibilities to be triggered by the merest display of opposition. By doing so, we challenge a basic pillar of democracy in our country. We may criticize and disapprove an artistic expression, but to prevent it from reaching the masses will lead to a quagmire of problems, creating a situation which will be downright deplorable.
Celebrated author Salman Rushdie says it best. –
“What is freedom of expression? For without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
 Supra, note 1.
 Govt. of A.P. v. P.L. Devi, AIR 2008 SC 1640
 (1994) 2 SCC 434
 Narendra Kumar, Constitutional Law of India (Allahabad Law Agency, 9th edn. 2015).
 Romesh Thaper v. the State of Madras, AIR 1950 SC 124.
 Supra, note 6.
 Supdt. Central Prison v. Ram Manohar Lohia, AIR 1960 SC 633
 Collector & Dist. Magistrate v. S. Sultan, AIR 2008 SC 2096
 Prof. S.N. Misra, Indian Penal Code (Central Law Publications, 20th edn. 2016)
 2006 Cri L.J. 368 (Cal.)
 Ramji Lal Modi v. The State of U.P., 1957 AIR 620.