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India: We dont need a blasphemy law in Punjab - Editorials and commentary

27 August 2018

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  • Punjab’s effort to criminalise blasphemy further is dangerous
  • Amarinder Singh’s blasphemy law can have disastrous consequences in Punjab
  • Reject Punjab’s life term for sacrilege
  • A blasphemous law
  • India: Punjab Sacrilege bill - A Dangerous Game


Hindustan Times

Punjab’s effort to criminalise blasphemy further is dangerous

Going a step ahead over the previous version of the Bill by proposing life-term for sacrilege of all religious texts hints at the Punjab Congress’s attempt to score the political brownie points.

Aug 24, 2018

The Amarinder Singh cabinet approved amendments to the CrPC and IPC, making the desecration of religious texts punishable with life in Punjab(Anil Dayal/HT)

In what seems a clear attempt to pander to religious sensibilities, the Punjab government has sought a state-specific amendment to make the country’s blasphemy law under Section 295 of the IPC more stringent. Currently, it prescribes two years punishment for “injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class.”

The Amarinder Singh cabinet, on Tuesday, approved amendments to the CrPC and IPC, making the desecration of religious texts punishable with life in Punjab. It made the case for the insertion of Section 295 AA, providing that “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life”. Criminalising the blasphemy law further is fraught with danger and it needs to undergo much more legal scrutiny before it is pushed through, if at all.

Even the context and timing of the Bill has more to do with scoring populist brownie points in a state where religion and politics mingle ceaselessly. The bill was first enacted by the previous Akali Dal-BJP government as a desperate damage-control exercise in the wake of Sikh rage over a rash of desecrations of the Sikh holy book in 2015. The amendment at that time specifically sought life imprisonment for desecration of Guru Granth Sahib and a 10- year term for that of other religious texts. But the home ministry returned the bill saying it would violate the Constitutional principle of secularism and was “excessive in law”. The current Congress government in the state withdrew the bill last year. The home ministry has to approve state-specific changes in the central code.

Still, the issue remains an emotive one. What has raised political temperatures is a report by the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission set up by the Amarinder government to probe past incidents of blasphemy. It is no coincidence that the bill’s presentation in the assembly on August 24 has been timed with the tabling of the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission report which squarely blames the previous government for the past incidents of sacrilege.

Harsh blasphemy laws in other countries have been brazenly misused to settle political scores and silence opponents of the ruling regime. They also feed religious frenzy as we have seen in our neighbourhood. The only redeeming aspect is that Punjab’s bill will have [to] go through central scrutiny. Hopefully, at that stage the more draconian provisions of the bill will be removed.

o o o, August 24, 2018

Amarinder Singh’s blasphemy law can have disastrous consequences in Punjab

Even when seen from the narrow political terms, the Congress can only hope to have a short-term gains as the use religious sentiments for political purposes is more likely to help the Akali Dal and the BJP

by Ashutosh Kumar

The Amarinder Singh-led Congress government in Punjab has decided to introduce a bill in the forthcoming assembly session to amend the Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2016 and the code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2016 to make sacrilege of religious scriptures punishable by life imprisonment.

The amended part would include Section 295 AA in the IPC to make sacrilege punishable for desecration of not only the Guru Granth Sahib, as was the case with the earlier bill passed by the Shiromani Akali Dal government, but also include the scriptures of other religious communities, i.e. Bhagavad Gita, Bible and Quran. Once passed by the legislature, it would await the Centre’s approval — an earlier bill was returned by the Centre on the ground that the punishment sought should have been for hurting the religious sentiments of all communities.

The Congress government’s decision to introduce the bill coincides with its decision to table the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission Report, which looked into incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and the ensuing protests in several villages in late 2015. Protesters were killed in police firing in Behbal Kalan and Kotakpura in Faridkot.

Akali patriarch Parkash Singh Badal’s name has also figured in the report. Badal has also been accused of pressurising the head granthi of Takht Damdama Sahib and other Sikh priests to exonerate the Dera Sacha Sauda chief of blasphemy charges after he was charged with impersonating the 10th Sikh Guru.

With the bill and the report, the Congress has revived its attack on the Akali Dal, charging the party of failing to check repeated incidents of desecration of the holy book and trying to exonerate the Dera chief eyeing the votes from his followers.

In politics, timing matters. The Congress is trying to do two things as 2019 elections is around the corner with Punjab among the few states where the party clearly fancies its chances.

One, the party wants to remind the panthic voter about the abject failure of the Akali Dal to check the repeated acts of sacrilege hurting the religious sentiments of the Sikh community.

The Akali leadership (read the Badal family), despite remaining in power for two terms (2007-17), has been at the receiving end from both the panthic voter and the sizeable Sikh diaspora for weakening not only the ideology of the cadre-based party but also the two pillars of Sikh politics — the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and the Akal Takht.

In the 2014 and 2017 polls, many of the disgruntled panthic voters supported the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). As the AAP in Punjab seems to be on the verge of imploding, Singh, who had resigned from the Congress after Operation Blue Star, aims to wean away the committed panthic vote of the Akali Dal and the AAP in Congress’ favour.

Second, the party also wants to flaunt its secular character to strengthen its support base among other communities by proposing the sacrilege bill.

While the Akali Dal must take its share of the blame, the Congress cannot get away for playing with the religious sentiments of the people in a state which has in the past witnessed such politics taking a disastrous turn.

The Congress’ move to further strengthen the blasphemy law has come at a time when the middle classes in society are moving towards right-wing politics based on religious identity.

The Constitution underlines the secular democratic character of Indian polity by not only invoking it in the Preamble but also by guaranteeing the right to religious freedom through Articles 19 and 25. Given this, there are existing laws to punish those who hurts religious sentiments — so, is there a need to bring an extraordinary law?

We are witnessing mobs going on a rampage justifying their acts in the name of religion; extraordinary laws, such as the ones to protect national security, have led to highhandedness by state agencies, and; such laws have led to political parties misusing it in the past. The proposed blasphemy law must be seen in this light.

Even when seen from the narrow political/electoral terms, the Congress can only hope to have a short-term gains as any attempt to use religious sentiments for political purposes is more likely to help the Akali Dal, the past master of panthic politics, and the BJP.

(Ashutosh Kumar is professor, department of political science, Panjab University. Views expressed are personal)

o o o

The Economic Times, August 25, 2018


Reject Punjab’s life term for sacrilege

The government of Punjab has done the nation a disservice by seeking to add a section to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that would make even reasoned debate of theology a crime that warrants life imprisonment.

The Centre should reject the recommended change to the IPC. The colonial-era law already contains two sections, 295 and 295A, which provide for two-year and three-year prison terms, respectively, for damaging or defiling any place or object held to be sacred by any class of people and for hurting the religion or religious sentiments of any class of people. Punjab now proposes 295AA with life imprisonment for “injury, damage or sacrilege” to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Geeta, the Quran and the Bible.

The Akali Dal government of Punjab had proposed a similar law for defiling the Guru Granth Sahib, in the wake of repeated incidents of deliberate attempts to incite religious fury by strewing torn pages and mangled copies of the Sikh holy book in different parts of Punjab. The Centre had turned down the proposal on the ground that it was not secular. The present amendment incorporates the holy books of other major faiths and, so, seeks to clear the secular bar. This is the wrong response to deliberate attempts by anti-national forces to provoke religious disturbance. The political class should unite to ask people to be on guard against such provocation, and seek their cooperation to defeat anti-India moves. Sensible politics and law enforcement are the right response, not tougher laws liable to abuse.
To have such a law on the statute book is to invite abuse: the law on sedition is a case in point. Sedition cases have been rife across the land, in spite of repeated Supreme Court rulings that only active incitement to violence against the state constitutes sedition.

o o o

The Indian Express, August 25, 2018

A blasphemous law

Using state power to enforce the sacred, Punjab’s sacrilege law defiles the sacred, messes with the secular.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta

The blasphemy law also messes with secularism. A liberal state needs two sensibilities.

The blasphemy law also messes with secularism. A liberal state needs two sensibilities. The Punjab government’s proposal to amend Article 295 of the Penal Code is deeply regressive and will have deep ramifications beyond Punjab. The proposed amendment gives life imprisonment for whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Bhagwad Gita, the Quran and the Bible. As we have seen in the case of neighbouring Pakistan, the progressive strengthening of anti-blasphemy laws during the Seventies was a sign of a toxic combination of greater intolerance and authoritarianism. Does India want to traverse the same road?

Holy books like the Adi Granth are sacred. They are sacred not just for their content. They express the highest truths about Ultimate Reality. The “Sat” in “Ek Omkar Sat Nam” brilliantly combines both Truth and Existence. But in the Sikh tradition, the Book is also treated iconically, with elaborate rituals around its sacred treatment, often to the point where it is not easily disseminated. But using state power to enforce the sacred, both defiles the sacred and messes with the secular.

The article defiles the sacredness of the Book, the eternity of the Word because the status of the Book now becomes an artefact of state power. It is if the song of Krishna, or the word of Mohammad, or the teaching of the Gurus, now need the imprimatur of state violence to secure their sacredness.
Rather than being luminous, potent and transcendent texts, their status is now reduced to a section of the Indian Penal Code. It also gives defilers of these texts more power: It is in effect saying these books can, in fact, be defiled by some rearrangement or even a burning of a copy. So much for the indestructible Word. The greatest heresy is to think that the word of God needs protection from the mortal state. The sacrilege to the book is not its burning, it is this law.

But this law also messes with secularism. A liberal state needs two sensibilities. The first is that many good things are good and derive their authentic meaning precisely from the fact that there is no coercion behind them. The second is that my beliefs and faith, even if entirely sound, do not by themselves provide sufficient ground for the state using its coercive power to enforce them. The argument that the state needs to use coercive power in deference to religious sentiments (however sincere those sentiments might be), is a piece of illiberal and dangerous nonsense. I may respect something, but it does not give sufficient warrant for the state to enforce this belief or sentiment on others. Religious sentiments need not be illiberal; but they become illiberal when they become the basis for the state enforcing the idea that everyone has to defer to those sentiments. In India, we are constantly expanding the circle of deference to religious sentiment. Contrary to what the Punjab government says, making religious sentiments the basis for law, is a recipe for competitive political mobilisation and conflict, not of peace. This law is also deeply authoritarian. The idea of life imprisonment for acts of injury to the book is neither about deterrence, nor piety. It is simply about the state making a show of its power because it can.
The law also messes with history in bizarre ways. In order to show that the law was not directed at a particular religion, the act includes texts like the Bhagwad Gita in its ambit. The law is still sectarian in that it protects four texts, and the state has decided which texts get protection. But whatever the glories and importance of the Bhagwad Gita, the idea that the state now creates a new liturgy of respect around that text in the same way as the Adi Granth or the Koran, is the state taking over the right to define the significance of these texts in its own way. It is in effect converting the text to what it has never been.

Defenders of the amendments say that the text will not lead to the closing of spaces for criticism, since the act of injury to the text is narrowly defined. But this is plain nonsense. One of the tragedies of modern Sikhism is simply that the religion of extraordinary ecumenism and wondrous detachment has become often seriously internally intolerant. Part of this is political: The SGPC wanting to maintain as much of its monopoly over the religious organisation as possible. But if you talk to serious Sikh scholars you will quickly find out just how difficult it is to do serious critical scholarship in this area: Scholars have been traumatised by their communities. I have personally known scholars who will not write critically on intra-Sikh politics for fear of reprisals.

Often the issue is simply that the scholarship dealing with the character of the text is considered “injurious” to the text, a defilement. In another context, even our courts have held rearranging Basava Vachanas in a different order (to give a more “feminist” reading) was offensive to the Lingayats. Given this context, any law that empowers the state to give upto life imprisonment for injury to the book is about nothing but creating a pall of fear. Its effect will not be the number of prosecutions; its effect will be more palpably felt in people not even daring to push the boundaries of protest.

When the original IPC was discussed in the 1920s, our leaders were far more conscious of its possible infringement on liberty. Now the political class legitimises any infringement on liberty with the imprimatur of majoritarian sentiment behind it. It is true that in Punjab there were acts of desecration of several religious texts. But there are enough existing laws to deal with those who would want to maliciously generate enmity between communities. Second, the motives of these desecrators are mixed. But if they have a political purpose, it is to make sure that they can use religious sentiments to destroy India’s liberal democracy. By caving into those fears, by treating Indian citizens as infantile creatures of passion who cannot be educated for liberty, we are unwittingly aiding their political agenda.

It should also worry a democracy that no political party has opposed or called out the authoritarian character of this bill. Congress and AAP are now both legitimising “religious sentiment” as itself a valid argument (think Ayodhya). For, caving in to some nebulous argument about religious sentiments does not just make us destroy both religion and the state, it also produces political cowardice of the highest order.

The writer is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University.

o o o, August 26, 2018

India: Punjab Sacrilege bill - A Dangerous Game

by Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Punjab’s Congress government trading a dangerous path again trying to ‘beat’ BJP in using religion as a pretext. Why Mr Amrinder Singh feel that any critique to religion is sacrilege and the person need to be punished for life?
While, I can understand that in multicultural societies we need to be very careful. As administrator we must be above our personal prejudices based on caste, religion and regional identities and therefore ensure that deliberate attempt to dishonor faith or humiliate people on the basis of their faith must be protected, in the very similar way as people have right to profess their faith as well as declared that they are non believers.

This country developed secularism under the guise of multiculturalism which left non believers, humanists, atheists, rationalists outside the prism of ‘secularism’ even when our first prime minister was a proclaimed atheist yet secularism was more used as symbolism to look better governed and functioned than our problematic neighbours where religious bigot dominated the political discourse as well as politics.

The Sarv Dharm Sambhav business in India has hurt those who seek reforms with in their own religions. It stop people from doing so as the religious groups join hands. Multiculturalism and secularism are not synonymous as being suggested in India. Secularism is basically for the state to be non religious and treat all equally as per rule of law.

Now, Punjab Sacrilege bill is still not known as what is sacrilege. Frankly, Punjab was not bothered about others. The Akalis had prepared the bill that any one who defile Guru Granth Saheb or speak ill against it will be punished and the bill was returned by the center and now punjab government has become more ‘inclusive’ and included Geeta,Quran and Bible in it. Question is what is the definition of sacrilege? Will it be physical burning or defiling of the religious books or the definition would be enlarged to include any critique of religion or religious practices, in the name of ‘hurting’ ‘religious sentiments’ of the people or spreading animosity among communities. If the bill stops people from critiquing religion then it will become blasphemy law and will be dangerous. We all are witnessing how secular, human rights activists, minority rights activists are being attacked in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia under the blasphemy laws where questioning Islam is blasphemous. Will Punjab lead India towards a new blasphemous act ? Will other states too follow this ridiculous act to appease all the religious people of sarv dharm variety ?

All religions have deeply inbuilt prejudices. There are discriminatory practices divinely sanctioned by religion. You can say some are better than others but by and large they remain rigid as religions do not allow you to ‘amend’ their ‘verses’ or hymns which are absolutely out of date as per our times unlike our constitution which allow people to amend the rules or acts to suit the interests of the people according to the time.

It means all the critique by the Dalit Bahujan Adivasis in India to the so called brahmanical religious text which degraded them and devalued them, will come under this act ? It means any Muslim woman or former Muslim who question Quran or any christian who write ‘ Why I am not a Christian’ should face life imprisonment ? It means Dr Ambedkar’s ‘Riddles of Hinduism’ will be prohibited ? It means we can’t read Salman Rushdie’s book ‘freedom at midnight’ or Satanic verses. If means all the Mazhabis and Ravidasis who critique Sikkhism will get life imprisonment. In democratic societies, we need not to agree with everything said by people or written by them but we defend their right to express themselves. Differences are only countered through providing better critique and alternatives and not by stifling their voices or sending them to imprisonment.

It is dangerous. All Ambedakrites, human rights activists, those believe in human freedom must oppose the Punjab bill as it is an attempt to stop people from critiquing religion. We can understand and will support if some one defile a religious place physically but writing critique of religion or speaking against it does not and should not come under such stringent laws. Even if Punjab government want an act, it must consult human rights groups, general public at large, social activists on the issue. The supreme court must reject it unconstitutional which gives us freedom of expression and thought.

Is not not strange and shameful that religious critique which our constitution allow us to do is being banned and punishment being made to life imprisonment while those who are burning the constitution and insulting it are let off lightly.

What an India. Rahul Gandhi and Congress party must ponder it whether Amrinder Singh is deliberately hurting Congress or whether he has the support from Congress high command. If the party high command support it, then we must say, the congress has still not learnt its lessons well and continue to appease the religious groups. It is time, the voices of common people must be heard and not merely the religious heads. Punjab government must be forced to take this bill back which is against our constitution and all democratic norms. It violate the fundamental rights of an individual to critique religion and can be misused by police officials as well as politicians to target their opponents which will bring more chaos and anarchy in the society. India has to be guided by religious morality and not through individual religious values.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at twitter @freetohumanity Email: vbrawat[at]


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