The Madras High Court in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu has ordered Catholic priest Father George Ponnaiah, a vicar of Kuzhithura Diocese, to face trial for allegedly hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus.
Justice G.R. Swaminathan, delivering the order on January 10, said that "the offending speech" of the priest, "prima facie attracts the offenses" under various clauses of the Indian penal code (IPC).
Father Ponnaiah is accused of outraging the religious feelings of Hindus, promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, and doing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony, among others.
The court dropped charges of him violating the Epidemic Diseases Act provisions for breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules.
The court said the words uttered by the priest were "sufficiently provocative" and that "they reek of malice and supremacism." On the question of whether the State can ignore such "incendiary statements" as that of a "lunatic fringe," the court noted that Ponnaiah is a "charismatic Catholic priest" who "commands a large following."
The court said the speech prima facie attracts offences under IPC Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race…), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) and 505(2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes). It quashed Section 143, 269 and 506(1) of IPC and Section 3 of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, as they were "not made out."
On July 18, 2021, Father Ponniah spoke at a public meeting to mark the death of the Jesuit priest and activist Stan Swamy at Arumanai, a village in the Kanyakumari district. He also protested against the continued closure of churches in the district due to Covid-19 regulations.
The video of the speech, shared by many online, showed Father Ponniah ostensibly mocking a state minister for his refusal to grant permission for worshipping centres to function during the pandemic. In the video, he reminds the minister, "you won, then it is the alms we Christians and Muslims have thrown to you. You won not because of your talents".
The video, which went viral, contained statements against various religious communities, leaders of the state's ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government and leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
The video caused a reaction and Right-wing Hindu groups demanded the immediate arrest of the priest. He was arrested on July 24 last year. A local court remanded him to judicial custody. He was later released on bail.
Father George later sought a pardon, saying his intention was not to hurt anyone. However, the police filed charges. He approached Madras High Court seeking a direction to quash the charges.
However, the single bench of Justice G.R. Swaminathan, in a 31 page order, said that the priest should face trial for his statements.
"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," said the judge in his 31-page order.
"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 grounds of religion. The petitioner repeatedly demeans the Hindu community. The words uttered by the petitioner are sufficiently provocative. They reek of malice and supremacism. The question is whether the state can ignore such incendiary statements as that of a lunatic fringe. The answer has to be in the negative. The petitioner is a charismatic Catholic priest. He commands a large following."
"Those who fight against conversions do not regard Jesus as a false god or even a foreign god. They actually fight against the monopolistic claim that he is the only god and all other gods and goddesses are false," the judge says in the order.
Justice Swaminathan said evangelical and Islamist forces often join hands during elections to defeat any pro-nationalist political dispensation. This cuts across the parties, he noted.
"But remember one thing. This is not about religion. This is about theodiversity. The Hindu majority is the protection of all minorities," he said.
The judge admitted that he "fell in love with Lord Jesus Christ. Did he not say, 'Beloved, let us love one another because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God?'"
According to UCA News, Archbishop Antony Pappusamy of Madurai, who is also the apostolic administrator of Kuzhithurai Diocese, disapproved of Father Ponnaiah's alleged remarks. He said the Catholic Church does not support such statements.