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India’s laws against obscenity

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  • Categories
    Polity & Governance
  • Published
    27th Jul, 2022


Based on a complaint by a Mumbai-based NGO, the Mumbai Police registered an FIR against actor Ranveer Singh for sharing photographs from an apparently nude photoshoot that he did with ‘Paper’ magazine.

What is Obscene?

  • The word obscene comes from the Latin word obscenus, which means foul, repulsive, or detestable. 
  • Obscene can be understood as ‘offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality and decency.’ 

Anti-Obscenity Laws in India

  • Section 292 and 293 of IPC prohibit publication and sale of obscene books, pamphlets, inter alia representation which shall be deemed to be ‘lascivious or appeals to the prurient interests’, which can include obscene advertisements.
  • Section 294prohibits obscene acts and songs.
  • The law on obscenity has evolved with the advent of the Internet and social media. Under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, anyone who publishes or transmits obscene material in electronic form can be punished.

Important foreign cases

  • Regina v. Hicklin (1868): In this case, Justice Cockburn stated the test of obscenity as:
    whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.
  • Roth v. United States: The Court repudiated the Hicklin test and defined obscenity more strictly as material whose dominant theme was taken as a whole appeal to the prurient interest of the average person, applying contemporary community standards. Only material meeting this test could be banned as obscene.
  • Indian Cases:
  • Ranjit D. Udeshi vs State Of Maharashtra
  • Samaresh Bose And Anr vs Amal Mitra And Anr

Classification of offence:

  • The offence of obscenity is cognizable (a case in which a police officer cannot arrest the accused without an arrest warrant) and
  • The cognizance of such offences can be taken by any
  • The offence under section 294 is also non-compoundable.

Then, what about freedom of expression?

  • The right to freedom of speech and expression is not absolute.
  • Article 19 of the Constitution of India, which guarantees the right also provides for reasonable restrictions on various grounds, including that of decency and morality.
  • This means that free speech has to be balanced against the contemporary community standards of morality when it comes to penalising obscene acts or content.

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