Monday, 10 October 2011

A Landmark Judgement


Ramesh Nagaragere        

This commentary on the Judgement delivered by the High Court of Karnataka was published in the October 2010 issue of Indian Skeptic, an ezine now defunct. We upload the essay as the judgement continues to be relevant to the rationalist movement in India.

There have been occasions when Indian judiciary has surprised, shocked and disappointed people who expected it to pass verdicts which would take the society forward. One well known case in point is the judgement given out by the Rajasthan high court against Bhanvari Devi in 1994 saying that those who had been accused of raping her were from the upper castes and hence could not have done such a heinous deed and acquitted all of them.

High Court of Karnataka

But now and then we come across some silver linings creating some hope in us about the efficacy and forward looking nature of the judges. I refer to the judgement announced by Justice H N Nagamohan Das of the High Court of Karnataka on 13th September, 2010. At one stroke he quashed the non bailable warrant issued by a lower court against Mr Hulikal Nataraj for 'hurting the Hindu sentiments' by criticizing and talking against some dearly held beliefs of many Hindus. This is surely a land mark judgement since it belongs to that group of decisions of learned judges like Justice VR Krishna Iyer. This emboldens and strengthens the hands of those who have been fighting against obscurantism and superstition which are still respected in this society since they are our 'tradition'.

Now, for the details of the case. Mr Nataraj teaches at Swami Vivekananda Higher Primary School, Doddaballapur some 35 kms away from Bangalore, He is well known for his acts of exposing the miracles, a programme popularised in Karnataka and in many other parts of India by Dr Narendra Naik. On 26th February at one such programme at Madikeri in Coorg district of Karnataka, he is said to have explained the dubious nature of Makara Vilakku and the case of an eagle going round the Garuda Stambha at Ayyappa temple of Shabarimala. (It could me be mentioned here that some time ago, one of the trustees of Ayyappa temple admitted that the so-called divine JYOTHI WAS ONLY A HUMAN CREATION.) He is also said to have called the so called theerthobhava at Bhagamandala, the sudden springing up of water in the river Kaveri as ‘false’. The next day, on 27th February a complaint was lodged against him by one Chethan, an activist   of Bhajarangadal of Madikeri with the police of the town. The charge was that Mr. Nataraj, by calling these phenomena false had hurt Hindu sentiments. The police registered a case against him, filed it in the court of the magistrate at Madikeri and a non-bailable warrant was issued against the accused. This act on the part of the police and the court at Madikeri did cause some furore at that time and was forgotten later.

Karnataka was reminded of this case again on 13th September, 2010 when the press reported that the case against Mr Natara was quashesd by the High Court judge Justice H N Nagamohan Das.  Mr.  Nataraj had challenged the order of the Madikeri court in the High Court of Karnataka and his case was argued by the well known Advocate Prof Ravi Varma Kumar and his assistant Mr Irshad Ahmad.

Especially noteworthy is the extent of intellectual efforts put forth by the Judge to build up a case for acquitting Mr Nataraj. The text of the judgement reads like a treatise on rationalism and scientific temper. The constitutional obligation of every citizen of India to uphold and promote scientific temper and a spirit of enquiry without which no society can ever dream of moving in the direction of progress is also mentioned to support his decision.  The most surprising thing is that the importance of Section 51 A(h) of Indian Constitution which addressed this issue was lost on the  police officer  as well as the judge at Madikeri.

Hulikkal Nataraj
Justice Nagamohan Das divides the text into five parts of which three are devoted to a delineation of the issue at hand, Under titles such as FREEDOM OF SPEECH, SUPERSTITIONS, and FUNDAMENTAL DUTIES,  he traces the growth of the spirit of inquiry among humans every where. The very first sentence, almost axiomatic, sets out the direction and tone the whole text was to follow: 'UNFREEDOM is the result of oppression and freedom is the outcome of liberation'. The learned judge cites various verdicts of the English, American and Indian seats of justice in this regard in support of his arguement. The words of Justice Frankfurter in the case DENNIS   Vs. UNITED STATES (34 US 494(1951) are very much relevant in the present context when we are still plagued by those swearing in the name of cultural nationalism and superstitions calling them parts of a glorious tradition, '....the liberty of man to search for truth ought not to be fettered, no matter what orthodoxies may challenge. Liberty of thought soon shrivels without freedom of expression '.

The judge also quotes extensively thinkers like Buddha, Basaveswara, Nehru and Dr Radhakrishnan to uphold the importance of being open minded. He rightly notes that scientific temper takes one beyond Science and 'creates a conducive atmosphere to eradicate class discrimination, slavery, bonded labour, untouchability, gender discrimination and racial discrimination'.  He also points out that when a citizen is threatened for discharging his fundamental duty of promoting scientific temper he/she can approach the court for a direction to the government to protect him/her from any harm.

The text of the judgement reveals how the complainant from Bhajarangdal and the police officer have bungled in their interpretation of the words 'wounding the religious feelings’ of Hindus. Similarly it also notes that the judicial officer at Madikeri has gone about the case in a 'mechanical manner'.  Finally on the basis of all these findings, all grounded on rationalism, progressive thinking and commitment to the spirit of the Indian Constitution, the learned judge quashes the order of the lower court and discharges Mr Nataraj of all charges.

With a judgement of this importance, notwithstanding some unease, Iyer and Nagamohan Das stand tall among hundreds of judicial functionaries, many of whom, unfortunately, are not very much different from the judge of the Rajastah High Court already referred to. The victory of Mr Nataraj is not merely a personal gain but it is the victory of scientific thinking and rationalism over irrationalism and of democracy over fascism.

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