Social Science Research Council Research AMP Mediawell

Slandering the Sacred: Blasphemy Law and Religious Affect in Colonial India

Scott, J. Barton

This book explores hate speech and blasphemy by analyzing the colonial laws that continue to shape twenty-first-century structures of feeling. It is a study of secularism as global political form, as refracted through a single law: Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes outraging religious feelings. Frequently invoked in contemporary India, Section 295A was enacted in 1927 to resolve a controversy around the Rangila Rasul, a Hindu-authored tract satirizing the sexuality of the Prophet Muhammad. 295A was designed as a secularized blasphemy law, reimagining the English common law crime of blasphemy (still a jailable offense in 1920s Britain) for colonial India. This book asks how British colonial secularism’s distinctive conceptual grammar emerged. Its narrative opens in the 1920s, at the height of the Rajpal affair. It then cuts back to the 1830s, when Thomas Macaulay first drafted the Indian Penal Code, basing it partly on the ideas of Jeremy Bentham. The book then proceeds to an in-depth study of the Arya Samaj, the Hindu reform society behind the publication of the Rangila Rasul. By moving between the worlds of colonial law and modern South Asian religions, the book develops new methods for analyzing the intimate production of “religion” as embodied terrain of secular governance. It thus pushes against, and works to re-theorize, the public/private distinction. By moving between Britain and India, the book builds on scholarship in postcolonial studies to argue that “religious feelings” need to be understood as geopolitical affects, formed across multiple political geographies.