New Delhi: Should an atheist in the witness box be asked to take oath in the name of God? A Guwahati court seems to think so.
The Judicial Magistrate First Class (JMFC) court in the city Monday refused to allow a journalist from Arunachal Pradesh, who described himself as an atheist, to swear in the name of the Constitution and was made to swear in the name of God.
Taba Ajum, 36, who works with The Arunachal Times, was testifying in a case related to the 2012 attack on his colleague and senior journalist Tongam Rina outside the newspaper’s Itanagar office.
Speaking to ThePrint, Ajum said, “Before taking oath, the judge asked for my name, which tribe I belong to and the religion I followed. I informed that I was an atheist and wanted to swear in the name of the Constitution. But I wasn’t permitted. I had to finally swear in the name of God, even though I am a non-believer.”
Rina, who is the Deputy Editor of The Arunachal Times, tweeted about the incident that happened in the court on Twitter late Tuesday.
We were at court to give our statements for the first time regarding Arunachal Times assault case which happened in April 2012. @tabaajum an atheist refused to take oath in the name of god. Constitution, he asked. We still have no provision for people like you, the judge said!
— Tongam Rina (@tongamrina) March 3, 2020
While talking to ThePrint, Rina expressed her exasperation with the justice system as it has been eight years she has been waiting for justice.
“We are running out of patience now. The attack took place in 2012 and we were first summoned for a statement on 2 March (Monday), eight years after the attack. We were also told that the case had come to the court only in 2018,” she said.
Oath taking provisions in India
According to The Indian Oaths Act, 1873, people could take oath on holy books of their respective religion.
But the Law Commission, in its 28th report in 1965, suggested a revamp of the 1873 Act and a law was passed in 1969, introducing a uniform system of oath taking in the country, said Delhi-based advocate Ajay Verma.
Under the amended law, which is still in force, a person can take an oath in the name of God while deposing in a court without referring to any particular religious denomination.
Verma explained that a person can take oath in the name of the Constitution provided she or he “believes it was equivalent to God”. But, he added, it was up to a judge’s discretion to allow a person to do so.
In 2017, the Bombay High Court had dismissed a PIL, seeking to allow atheists to take oath in the name of the Constitution.
The PIL, which was filed by a Pune-based couple in 2016, had said the 1969 law should be “declared violative of Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution” that provides for equality, freedom of speech and personal liberty of citizens as it refused non-believers to swear in the name of the Constitution.
The 2012 attack
Around 6 pm on 15 July 2012, Rina was shot in her stomach from a point-blank range by some assailants when she was about to enter her office in Itanagar. She had sustained serious injuries to her spinal cord and intestines.
Some reports later suggested that the attack was connected to her coverage of alleged corruption in the distribution of food and kerosene in the state.
In an article published in 2016, Rina also said there couldn’t be “any other reason for the attack other than” her work.
Rina has been awarded by the Reporters Without Borders in 2014, named the CNN-IBN Indian of the Year 2014 in public service and she also won the ‘Wing under the Wings’ award by the Sanctuary Asia in 2017.
The attack was condemned by both the national and international media.
The Arunachal Press Club and the Arunachal Pradesh Union of Working Journalists had kept half-page of their newspapers blank a day after of the attack, i.e. on 16 July 2012, in protest against the incident.
The Arunachal Times had also suspended publication for a day, on 17 July 2012, and refused all government releases until the culprits were arrested.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a US-based media watchdog, had sought a probe into the attack.
Slow pace of investigation
Nearly a year after the attack, the Arunachal Pradesh Police said three accused, Ajit Pegu, Gamke Veo and Raju Gurung, have been arrested. The mastermind of the shooting, Yumlang Achung, was absconding at that time. But, later he surrendered.
When asked about the arrests, Rina told ThePrint she doesn’t know who all were arrested.
“I don’t know who all were arrested in the case. I was also told that a charge-sheet was filed only a year after the attack took place. There is a lot of evidence that is missing too,” she told ThePrint.
Rina had filed the case in 2012, but investigation has dragged on for the past eight years.
On Tuesday, the senior journalist had lashed out at the snail’s pace at which the case has been progressing.
I survived an assassination attempt 15 July 2012. Was shot right outside my office. Guess what, the Guwahati high court is yet to return the files since 2015. I am yet to give a statement to court. That's justice system of India. I am done and will write. Court can go to hell.
— Tongam Rina (@tongamrina) March 3, 2020
This report has been updated to reflect accurately that it was the Judicial Magistrate First Class court, and not the Gauhati High Court as mentioned earlier, where journalist Taba Ajum was asked to take oath in the name of God. The error is regretted.