The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court has refused to quash the offence registered against Christian Pastor P. George Ponnaiah for a hate speech against Hindus given in July, 2021.

The Petitioner had approached the High Court seeking to quash the FIR registered against him Sections 143, 153A, 295A, 505(2), 506(1) and 269 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. Two individuals had intervened in the proceedings to oppose the petition. In his speech, the petitioner had called upon his associates to canvass votes in favour of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

Some portions of the speech quoted in the judgment are as follows:-

1. "It does not matter how many temples you renovate and consecrate. No Hindu, no devotee of Mandaikattu Amman is going to vote for you. If you won, then it is the alms we Christians and Muslims have thrown to you. You won not because of your talents."

2. "But we wear shoes. Why? Because the filth of Bharat Mata should not contaminate us. The Tamil Nadu government has given us free footwear. This bhumadevi is dangerous, you could catch scabies from it".

3. "We are now majority (in the district) from 42 per cent we have crossed 62 per cent. Soon we would be 70 per cent. You cannot stop us. I am saying this as a warning to my Hindu brothers".

4. "The last days of Modi are going to be pathetic. I give it in writing. If the God we worship is a true living God, the history should see Modi and Amit Shah being eaten by dogs and worms."

5. "I was born into a Hindu family. My grandfather was Hindu. Since he thought it fit that his daughter should leave this gutter, he gave her hands in marriage to my Christian father. If not for this marriage, I would have been a possessed man ringing bells at some "Sudalaimaadan Swamy" temple. The Christian faith gave us liberation. Hence, we shall continue to evangelise this faith."

6. "Mandaikkaadu Amman (Devi) caught fire owing to deficiencies in "Mantra Puja". It is understandable. He (the Brahmin Priest) chants in Sanskrit. He chants the same Mantra at a wedding which he chants at a funeral. The fire breakout was bound to happen."

7. "Manothangaraj goes to the Suseendiram temple. Can he not enter the temple wearing a shirt? Would we allow someone who looks like he's returned in a towel after bathing in a pond to enter our church? We would say "Get out, you tweak". Christianity has taught you to wear a shirt. But you go in without a shirt. Glad you atleast wore a Veshti (Dhoti)"

Provisions invoked against the Petitioner

The Bench of Justice G. R. Swaminathan held that Section 143 of IPC will not apply since the speech was made during a meeting was held in a private place convened to mourn the demise of Father Stan Swamy, a jesuit priest and activist, without any unlawful object.

The Court held that since none of the participants in the event contracted any infectious disease, Section 269 of IPC and Section 3 of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 also could not have been invoked. The Court also held that Section 506(1) of IPC will not also be attracted because the speech was made from a platform and no affected person had complained that he felt criminally intimidated.

However, the Court upheld the application of Section 295A of IPC after considering the contents of the speech made by the petitioner. The Court made the following observations:-

"On the petitioner's own showing, the meeting was convened for the twin purposes mentioned above. There was absolutely no need or necessity to mount a visceral attack on the religious beliefs of the Hindus. It was unwarranted and utterly unrelated to the occasion. That is what makes it deliberate and malicious."

"He painted Bhuma Devi and Bharat Mata as sources of infection and filth. Nothing can be more outrageous to the feelings of the believing Hindus. Section 295A IPC is attracted when there is attack on the religious feelings and beliefs of any class of citizens. It is not necessary that all the Hindus should feel outraged. If the offending words outrage the religious feelings or beliefs of even a section of Hindus, the penal provision would be attracted."

Bharat Mata a Hindu Goddess

While holding that Bharat Mata is Hindu Goddess, the Court observed that, "Bharat Mata evokes a deeply emotional veneration in a very large number of Hindus. She is often portrayed carrying the national flag and riding a lion. She is to many Hindus a Goddess in her own right. By referring to Bharat Mata and Bhuma Devi in the most offensive terms, the petitioner has prima facie committed the offence under Section 295A of IPC".

Hate Speech and Background

The Court noted that a reading of the petitioner's speech as a whole does not leave anyone in doubt that his target was the Hindu community. The Court noted that the petitioner was putting Hindus on one side and the Christians and Muslims on the other, that he was pitting one group against the other. The distinction is made solely on the ground of religion, Court noted.

The Court noted that the words uttered by the petitioner are sufficiently provocative and reek of malice and supremacism.

The Court noted that Kanyakumari District where the speech was made has unique characteristics. "The demographic profile of Kanyakumari in terms of religion has seen an inversion. Hindus became a minority in the District since 1980. Though the 2011 census gives an impression that Hindus are the largest religious group with their number pegged at 48.5 per cent, that may not represent the ground reality. One can take judicial notice of the fact a large number of Scheduled Caste Hindus, though having converted to Christianity and professing the said religion, call themselves Hindus on record for the purpose of availing reservation. Such persons are called as crypto-christians. There was even a motion picture based on this theme (Rudra Thandavam). Out of courtesy, I refrain from mentioning the name of a Judge who belonged to such a category. There was even a writ petition challenging his status. Everyone pretended as if they did not know the truth. But when he died, he was buried as per Christian rites in a cemetery. That is why, notwithstanding the census figures, the petitioner boasts that the Christians have crossed 62 per cent in Kanyakumari District. He foresees that they would soon reach the figure of 72 per cent. His triumphalism is evident when he says "I warn the Hindus" and claims that nothing can stop their growth.", the Court noted.

The Court observed that the status quo in the matter of religious demography has to be maintained and that if there is a serious subversion of the status quo, calamitous consequences may follow. The Court held that the state is there to maintain and uphold the rule of law, but if the tipping point is reached, things may become irreversible.

While affirming individuals' freedom to choose religion, the Court observed on concerted and organised attempts at religious conversion that, "But religious conversions cannot be a group agenda. Our Constitution speaks of composite culture. This character has to be maintained. The clock of history can never be put back. But the status quo that obtains in the year 2022 as regards religious demographic profile may have to be maintained."

Court applied the "Who?" and "Where?" tests to distinguish the case of the petitioner from that of a rationalist, reformist, academic or an artist to hold that, "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 concluded by stating, "Recently, the world became poorer on account of the sad demise of Rev.Desmond Tutu, the great South African anti-apartheid leader. I only wish that the petitioner reads the moving tribute paid by Shri.Gopalkrishna Gandhi. I am certain that on the Judgment Day, God shall admonish the petitioner for having committed an un-Christian act".

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