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Why Punjab’s Sacrilege Law Can Prove Dangerous for India

Why Punjab’s Sacrilege Law Can Prove Dangerous for India

Can this new law, which proposes life imprisonment for desecration of all religious texts, become a stepping stone to more such laws in the country?

New Delhi: Punjab state Assembly on Tuesday unanimously passed Bills for an amendment to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr.P.C) to make sacrilege of all religious texts punishable with life imprisonment.

But just a few hundred kilometers from Punjab, nearly 70 people have been lynched to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges whereas another 40 are currently on death row or serving life sentence for blasphemy charges since 1990.

Incidents of sacrilege have been reported from Kohrian village in Faridkot, Mishriwala village, in Ferozepur, Ludhiana, in Gurusar Mehraj village, Bathinda and in Sarai Naga Village, Muktsar. According to the 2017 figures, Punjab Police had prepared a report that states more than 100 sacrilege incidents took place since June 1, 2015, out of which only 50 accused could be tried.

So can this new law be a stepping stone to more such laws in India? Would the Union of India move the same way as that of Pakistan and Indonesia? News18 breaks it down:

How and where did the sacrilege incidents occur?

It was June, 2015, when the first incident of sacrilege took place on the streets of Bargari Village on the Kotkapura-Bathinda highway. Two Sikh activists were killed and over 50 others injured in clashes with the police, following the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib ‘bir’. This incident had led to protests where participants had gathered with dangerous weapons.

In 2017, seven birs of Guru Granth Sahib were found partly burnt at a Gurdwara in Aulakh village of Muktsar district. The Gurdwara staff got alerted after seeing smoke coming out of a room where the birs were kept after recitation. It was later claimed that it happened due to a short circuit.

In the same year, torn pages containing Gurbani verses from the Sikh holy book were found in an open drain at Khalra village in Tarn Taran.

In January, 2018, torn pages of the Gutka Sahib (a small-sized book of Sikh hymns) were found scattered near a Gurdwara at Mothawali Village of Moga district.

Which provision of India law was used for blasphemy?

Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code has been used as a blasphemy law to prevent insulting Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.

This law, which was designed by the British, was created by the Christians and not repealed since. It was introduced in 1927 to hate speech that insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of any class of citizen with deliberate and malicious intention to outrage their religious feelings, but the main purpose of this law has been to maintain "public order in a multi-religious and religiously sensitive society”.

Convictions under this Section

In February 2009, the police arrested Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha, the editor and the publisher respectively of the Kolkata-based English daily The Statesman, for hurting Muslim sentiments.

The police charged Kumar and Sinha under Section 295A because they had reprinted an article from The Independent by its columnist Johann Hari. Titled ‘Why should I respect oppressive religions?’ the article stated Hari’s belief that the right to criticise any religion was being eroded around the world.

Thereafter in November 2012, Maharashtra Police arrested Shaheen Dhada (21) for questioning the total shutdown in the city for Bal Thackeray’s funeral in a Facebook post, and also her friend Renu Srinivasan (20) for liking her post.

Although no religious issue was involved, the two were charged under Section 295 (A) for hurting religious sentiments, apart from Section 66 (a) of the Information Technology Act 2000. However, the charges under Section 295 (A) were later dropped and the girls were charged for creating or promote enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes.

How does the new bill alter the present Section 295A?

The Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018 has inserted Section 295AA to the IPC to provide 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.”

The Bill further states “In the Indian Penal Code, 1860, in its application to the state of Punjab, in Section 295, for the words “two years”, the words “ten years” shall be substituted.

The amendments would need the assent of the President. Under the existing Section 295A, punishment is for a maximum of three years imprisonment with or without fine.

Why this new amendment is problematic

Hinduism, in essence, is polytheistic and pantheistic and hence never had place for the concept of blasphemy, and laws pertaining to religion and blasphemy are absent in the Indian constitution. However, Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code has been used as a blasphemy law.

Now, in this Punjab law, in an attempt 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 secular in a way that protects four texts, but attempting to levy the same kind of rigidity on Gita as with others could now lead to more tensions with attempted or actual desecrations of the Hindu religious text.

The second problem with the amendment is the omission of religions like Buddhism and Jainism, which has no mention in the new law. This harms deep at the root of being violative of the principle of secularism.

Have the courts ever ruled on Section 295A?

Before we look at precedents, to understand religion, in SP Mittal vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court defined religion as a “matter of belief and doctrine concerning the human spirit expressed overtly in the form of ritual and worship”.

Then this Section was challenged in the court too. The first such case came into light on April 5, 1957. In Ramji Lal Modi vs the State of UP, Ramji Modi, the editor of a cow-protection magazine had been booked under Section 295A. However, he took the case to the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the same.

In March 2007, a newspaper editor BV Seetharam was arrested under the Sections 153A, 153B, and 295 of the IPC for allegedly promoting religious hatred. He had written articles criticising the public nudity of the Digambara Jain monks. This case was again taken up to the top court.

Core problems with the new law

The new law leaves a lot to imagination. The bill falls short of defining what exactly “sacrilege” means. In a law, generally definitions form the touchstone of judicial interpretation which stands defeated in this case.

This is followed by the ambiguity around “intention to hurt religious feelings”, which again needs the section to be challenged in the court of law and thereby be explained by judges.

Can it be declared unconstitutional?

Judicial history stands witness to the fact that whenever a law has been vague or ambiguous, it has been struck down. Recap to the Shreya Singhal case.

The Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act for the same reason and was stated to be an unreasonable restriction on the right to freedom of speech and expression (Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution). The court had called the section as “undefined” and “open-ended.”

Second was the triple talaq case where arbitrariness was held to be a ground for declaring a law unconstitutional. Justice Nariman had opined that arbitrariness strikes at very root of constitutionality of a law.

Reports submitted on sacrilege incidents and how they differ

In 2016, Justice Zora Singh Commission had submitted its report on the incident of sacrilege of Sikhs’ holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, in Faridkot district and its aftermath. This commission was appointed by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.

The Commission was mandated to ascertain the causes and circumstances which led to the incident and its subsequent fallout to get into the bottom of the entire case.

It was alleged that the commission tried to safeguard the ruling regime and absolve it of responsibility and thereby only announce compensation. This compensation was rejected as it could not “substitute justice.”

The next commission was set up under Justice (Retd) Ranjit Singh by Captain Amarinder Singh. The second report has squarely blamed Badal family members. It has authenticated the involvement of Badal family with hard evidence.

The report says that Sukjbir Singh Badal, who was de-facto Chief Minister and home minister of state, had not only conspired in sacrilege incidents, but also protected the accused-hailing from Dera Sacha Sauda. “He stalled police action against the Dera men and also policemen guilty of firing on innocent Sikhs,” says the report.

Why desecration of religious texts became a big political issue

In 2017, desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib had snowballed into a major electoral issue in Bathinda, Muktsar, Faridkot and Moga districts during the assembly elections.

Both the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party promised that if they came to power, they would re-investigate the whole issue and bring the guilty to book. The previous Akali Dal-BJP government was criticised for its failure to solve the sacrilege cases. It was alleged that they had a hand in these incidents.

Can the blasphemy law be misused in Punjab?

A closer look at the neighbours is required to answer this question.

In early August this year, Pakistan’s blasphemy claimed another life in Lahore Qutab Rind, a young artist from Jacobabad who was employed at the National College of Arts in Lahore, was killed by his landlord on July 17 over fake blasphemy charges after he disagreed on rent payment terms. It was only after the social media took over the fight for justice that an investigation revealed the misuse of blasphemy law.

Another recent example is the Mashal Khan murder case. Mashal Khan, 23, was a student of journalism at Abdul Wali Khan University in the northwestern city of Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Mashal was lynched to death by his classmates over false allegations of blasphemy.

A joint investigation team (JIT) was formed to probe the case and released its report on June 3, 2017, clearing Mashal Khan of all blasphemy allegations.

This only goes on to show how a similar law could be used in India by unscrupulous elements.