Sacrilege is playing politics of religion

Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh

The Punjab government’s decision to amend the law on sacrilege, giving it wider scope and making it more stringent, is a retrograde move. The changes proposed by Captain Amarinder Singh’s Congress government are not intended to “preserve religious harmony in the state’’, as claimed by it, but to pander to base religious sentiments and to make political capital out of it. The state cabinet has approved an amendment to the Indian Penal Code by inserting a new clause, Section 295 AA, into it. It states that whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Gita, the Quran and the Bible with the intention to hurt religious feelings will be punished with imprisonment for life. Section 295 A already exists and it makes outraging of religious feelings an offence. It is a vaguely worded provision. The Supreme Court once clarified that it should be invoked only in cases of “aggravated insult to religion, perpetrated with malicious intention’’. 

Even the court’s explanation is vague and may not provide a clear guideline for action in specific cases. Every word in the law can be interpreted subjectively to haul up people before it. The Punjab amendment specifically mentions the names of religious books and increases the punishment from three years in jail to life sentence. The previous Akali Dal government had got a bill passed in 2016 making desecration of the Granth Sahib punishable with life term. But the Centre returned it saying that it was about only one religious book. So, the present government has included the books of other religions, too, in its bill. Sacrilege, damage, etc., can be defined in different ways, the claim of religious feelings being hurt is very common, and a malicious intention can easily be attributed. That makes the proposal dangerous and extremely liable to be misused. 

The law will make even legitimate and reasonable criticism of religion and religious books an offence. In a secular country, citizens have the right to criticise religion, its ideas, practices and its holiest books. This should not be curbed. The proposed law will undermine freedom of speech and may lead to motivated actions by politicians and governments against opponents. The dangerous potential of such a law can be seen from the use of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. India should not follow Pakistan in the persecution of people in the name of religion. The Congress also should not follow the BJP in appealing to narrow religious sentiments. It has recently invited charges of adopting soft Hindutva positions. If other states follow Punjab, the country will well be on the path to cease being a secular and democratic polity. 

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