THERE IS SOMETHING peculiarly medieval to the expressions ‘sacrilege’ and ‘blasphemy’ and in an avowedly secular country, this is doubly so. Yet, that has not prevented Punjab’s cabinet from recommending a bill for the consideration of the state Assembly that prescribes a prison sentence for ‘sacrilege’ against holy books.
The Code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab) Amendment Bill, 2018, and the Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018, will be tabled in the state’s Legislative Assembly in a session that starts on August 24th. If passed, it will lead to the insertion of a ‘Section 295AA’ in the Indian Penal Code that provides that ‘whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Bhagvad Gita, the Quran and the Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life’.
Since 2015, there have been incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, that have led to protests and unrest. Investigations, including those by the Central Bureau of Investigation, have not thrown light on who was responsible. In the meantime, a group of Khalistani activists in Canada, the UK and elsewhere have pursued their demand for a so-called ‘referendum 2020’ on a separate state for Sikhs.
As matters stand, Punjab politics remains shored in tranquil waters. But the state government’s action is probably anchored in political calculations around these issues. On the surface, of course, it is a plain effort to punish the perpetrators of a ‘crime’. However, if the Bills are enacted and turn into laws, then it is bound to have far-reaching effects. For one, sacrilege and blasphemy are exceptionally malleable expressions, which makes them prone to abuse. Further, if each Indian state began designing copycat laws, the cumulative effect on dampening liberal ideas and thought would be very severe. It is no one’s case that holy books be desecrated or insulted in any manner. But the inability to arrest persons indulging in such acts and punishing them under existing provisions of the law is a failure of the law-and-order administration. An illiberal law is not an answer to such failures. Such ideas were once the preserve of theological establishments that used them to ‘put in place’ radicals arguing in favour of freedom of expression. India of the 21st century should not return to those dark times.