On May 20, 2022, Indian police arrested Ratan Lal, a University of Delhi professor of history and an outspoken critic of the Indian government, for a social media post about the discovery of a structure that some described as a shivling, an idol that represents the Hindu deity Shiva.
On May 17, Lal allegedly posted to social media a comment on a photo of the structure found on the site of the Gyanvapi mosque in Banaras. The discovery made headlines when a group of Hindu women petitioned to pray at the site where the structure was found. According to The Wire, Lal’s post “drew on the phallic symbolism of the lingam – symbolism that is as old as the Hindu religion itself and is the subject of numerous scholarly books – and made a joke about the way the Gyanvapi ‘shivling’ looked.”
The same day of the post, Lal began receiving threats over social media and a lawyer named Vineet Jindal filed a criminal complaint against him. Jindal accused Lal of violating penal code sections 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion) and 295-A (malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings).
On May 20, police summoned Lal for questioning and arrested him that same day. The next day a court ordered that police release Lal on bail. The court further ordered that Lal refrain from social media posts or interviews regarding the shivling.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by the arrest of a scholar for nonviolent expressive activity — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from restricting or retaliating against expressive activity, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arrests and prosecutions intended to restrict or retaliate against scholars’ expressive activity undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.