Punjab Blasphemy Law

Punjab assembly recently  passed a bill for an addition to IPC clause 295 to give life imprisonment for any 'injury, damage or sacrilege' of four religious books, (Guru Granth Sahib, Koran, Bible and Geeta) with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people'. This is the first time in independent India that a punishment usually given for willfully murdering another human being has been recommended for defilement of religious books. In an article in Times of India (06-09-2018), Punjab chief minister Capt Amrinder Singh of Congress has justified the bill and tried to explain its context. From 2015 to 2017 before the last assembly elections, the state had witnessed more than one hundred cases of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs who form the majority in the state, and its torn pages were found at many places. Two persons were killed in police firing on people protesting against this sacrilege. According to him, these acts of sacrilege were a conspiracy to spread communal unrest and amounted to 'national security threat that needs to be dealt with an iron hand'. A similar bill was passed by the earlier Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) government, asking for life imprisonment only for the defilement of Guru Granth Sahib. The bill was returned by the NDA central government with the argument that in singling out the holy book of Sikhs it went against the principle of secularism enshrined in the Indian constitution. Amrinder Singh government has now added the other three religious books, to make the bill 'secular'.

Given the scale and number of incidents of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib in 2015-16, it is reasonable to assume that these were result of a conspiracy to agitate Sikhs for definite political ends. Further, it is also likely that this conspiracy enjoyed political patronage from certain sections of the political class of Punjab. The chief minister uses the image of 'iron hand' a number of times in his article to emphasise the necessity of a tough response. Yet the fact remains that for nearly three years Punjab police and the two successive governments have completely failed to bring perpetrators of this communal conspiracy to book. This is not an uncommon occurrence. The most abominable communal conspiracy of the post independent India was for the destruction of Babri mosque in 1991. However, no one has been punished for that heinous crime till date. Needless to say, failures of state authority to apprehend and punish perpetrators of communal conspiracies have only emboldened communal forces.

Democratic states are expected to be secular so that every citizen enjoys equal right of religious freedom without any hindrance from the state or other citizens. Hence, by definition a secular state cannot encourage deliberate and mischievous sacrilege against any religion. However, it does not mean that it has to show 'equal respect' to all religious practices. If any religious practice is found to violate requirements of democracy, then a secular state can declare it illegal. This is what the Constitution of India did with untouchability. This means that religious sentiments do not enjoy greater privilege or value than other public sentiments. There is no reason why the hurt to religious feelings should attract greater punishment than the hurt caused by misogynist or casteist abuses. In fact since the latter are invariably meant to humiliate and assert power over women and Dalits, these should attract greater punishment. By declaring sacrilege to be in the class of most serious crimes, the bill demands that religious sentiments enjoy greater importance than constitutional values like freedom from oppression, and fundamental rights.

Believers of a religion can claim to be hurt by any number of statements or actions by others. In India the most commonly claimed causes of hurt to religious sentiments have been books, films, and scholarly research. The bill further adds to the quiver of hurt to religious sentiments by very mischievously adding 'sacrilege' to the list. The latter is a theological concept. Its practical implications are determined by religious doctrines, whose interpretations are the privilege of a religious establishment. Hence, the bill pushes Indian legal system very dangerously towards theocracy.

The bill shifts the constitutional balance between fundamental rights of freedom of expression and religion on the one side and the powers of the state machinery and organised social bodies to restrain these rights on the other. In the current social context when rationalists like Dr Dabholkar, Dr Panasare, Prof Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh have been murdered for hurting Hindutva religious sentiments, M Farook of Coimbtore was hacked to death by Islamic fundamentalists for declaring himself to be an atheist, and lynch mobs are targeting minority citizens in the name of cow protection, it is necessary to reaffirm the primacy of rights to life, freedom of expression, and conscience. The bill goes in the opposite direction and willynilly strengthens the hand of fundamentalists.

While the two successive governments of Punjab failed to nab conspirators of the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib in 2015-16, the people of Punjab gave a fitting reply to the conspiracy by not falling for it. Public peace was largely maintained and the state had a peaceful transition of government in subsequent elections. Instead of learning from the people, both the Congress and the SAD are taking Punjab along a dangerous path that will gladden only communal fundamentalists. Both parties are kowtowing to communal fundamentalist demands that are against constitutional secularism and freedoms of expression and religion.

Fanatics in India are everywhere—they are in Congress as also in BJP. They are trying to ape Pakistan only to prove the point that they are no less religious bigots than the seasoned jihadists of Pakistan. Incidentally Pakistan's Supreme Court on October 31 overturned the conviction of a Christian woman Asia Bibi, who was on death now for eight years for blasphemy. Ironically, it is Pakistan's Punjab province, where the landmark judgement triggered massive protests by hardliners.


Vol. 51, No.19, Nov 11 - 17, 2018