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Madras HC refuses to quash FIR against Catholic priest who had used offensive language against Bharat Mata and Hindus

Justice GR Swaminathan added: "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.:

The Madras High Court has refused to quash the FIR filed against the Tamil Nadu Catholic priest named Father George Ponnaiah who was arrested in July last year for his hate speech targeting the Hindu community. The Madras HC observed that offensive words used against ‘Bharat Mata’ and ‘Bhumi Devi’ attract offence under Section 295A of the IPC, reports Live Law. 

The Madras HC bench of GR Swaminathan was hearing pastor George Ponnaiah’s plea seeking to quash the FIR filed against him under various sections including 143, 153A, 269, 295A, 505(2), 506(1) of IPC and Section 3 of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 for making derogatory remarks against ‘Bharat Mata’, Hindu religious beliefs, and against PM Narendra Modi and HM Amit Shah, during a meeting at Arumanai on July 18.

George Ponnaiah, the Catholic priest from Kanyakumari had moved the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court in August last year, seeking bail and quashing of the FIR registered against him.

Justice GR Swaminathan observed that the offensive words used against “Bharat Mata” and “Bhumi Devi” attract the offence of hurting religious sentiments under Section 295A of the Indian Penal. Thus, quashing the plea, the Madras HC observed: “The petitioner poked fun at those who walk barefoot out of reverence for Mother Earth. He stated that Christians wear shoes so that they won’t catch sources of infection and filth. Nothing can be more outrageous to the feelings of the believing Hindus”.

He further added that when religious feelings and beliefs of any class of individuals are attacked, Section 295A of the IPC is invoked. It is not necessary for all Hindus to be incensed. The punitive penalty would be invoked if the offensive words offend the religious sensibilities or beliefs of even a small section of Hindus.

Having said this, Justice GR Swaminathan added: “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 Bhumi Devi in the most offensive terms, the petitioner has prima facie committed offence under 295A of the IPC.”

The Court dismissed the Father’s claim that he was making religious criticism, noting that the speech was punishable under Section 153A of the IPC for promoting communal disharmony. The Madras HC judge said, “a reading of the petitioner’s speech as a whole does not leave anyone in doubt. His target is the Hindu community. He is putting them on one side and the Christians and Muslims on the other. He is clearly pitting one group against the other. The distinction is made solely on the ground of religion. The petitioner repeatedly demeans the Hindu community”.

Speaking on the rampant religious conversions taking place in the region at the behest of Father George Ponnaiah, the Madras HC bench came hard on the petitioner stating that religious conversions cannot be a “group agenda”. In this context, the court referred extensively to an article by Aravind Neelakandan in which he examined Kanyakumari’s changing demographics.

The offences of Father George Ponnaiah under Sections 143, 269, and 506(1) of the IPC, as well as Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, were annulled by the Court, while the charges under Sections 295A, 153A, and 505(2) of the IPC were upheld.

Catholic priest in Tamil Nadu arrested for hate speech against Hindus

It may be recalled that on Saturday (July 24, 2021), the police arrested a Catholic priest named Father George Ponnaiah from the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu for his hate speech targetting the Hindu community. The pastor had made the contentious remarks during a meeting on July 18 at Arumanai.

During the meeting with his followers, Ponnaiah condemned the closure of churches and the ban on conducting prayer meetings amidst the Coronavirus lockdown. He paid tribute to late Maoist sympathiser Stan Swamy and also criticised the move to deny permits to build new churches on patta land.

During the public meeting in Arumanai, Father George Ponnaiah also lambasted PK Sekar Babu, the Minister for Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HRCE). He also took potshots at the BJP at the expense of the local Nadar community.  

Fr Ponnaiah had further insulted Bharat Mata by claiming that she is dirty and can cause diseases. During his public address, he mocked MK Gandhi for not wearing footwear out of respect for Mother Earth (Bhumidevi/Bharat Mata). 

Fr Ponnaiah had also reportedly made derogatory remarks regarding Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Ponniah’s speech had sparked outrage on social media. Many Hindu organisations denounced his remarks and requested that he be detained. Over 30 complaints were filed in several cities in the state, following which he was arrested on July 24 from Madurai in Tamil Nadu.

On August 9, 2021, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court had granted conditional bail to the Kanyakumari Catholic priest, following which he moved the same bench seeking bail and to quash the FIR registered against him.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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