The recent decision of the Congress government in Punjab to mandate a sentence of 10 years to life for those who commit sacrilege is an indication of the dangerous times that lie ahead for an otherwise liberal and progressive society.
An earlier such Bill passed by the assembly during the Akali regime in March 2016 was withdrawn a few months ago, as it could not get the president’s assent on the grounds that it spoke only of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib. That Bill was introduced after several reports of the Sikh holy book being desecrated in 2015.
On June 1, 2015, a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib went missing from Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village, and was later found scattered in the streets of Bargari village on the Kotkapura-Bathinda highway. This resulted in mass protests and the police opened fire on the protestors, leading to the death of two people. Despite numerous political resignations, the state government under the Shiromani Akali Dal coalition failed to manage the situation, and peace and communal harmony in Punjab was severely affected. The desecrations continued, including in Aulakh village in Muktsar Sahib, Khalra village in Tarn Taran, Kohrian village in Faridkot, Mishriwala village in Ferozepur, Ludhiana, Gurusar Mehraj village in Bathinda and Sarai Naga village Muktsar.
A judicial probe was initiated by the Parkash Singh Badal government, but not much came of it. Neither were the culprits arrested, nor was the holy book restored. Though the tension died down for a few months, it was back with a vengeance around the time of the Punjab assembly elections in 2017. Both the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party tried to use the issue for their political gains, and it was the Congress that got maximum mileage from the discontentment. Keeping his election promise, Captain Amarinder Singh, after becoming chief minister, constituted a new commission under former high court judge Ranjit Singh to look into the sacrilege incidents.
That the Bill would be passed unanimously during discussions on the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission report was not unexpected. The ruling party and opposition seem to be competing over who will get credit for the Bill. The Vidhan Sabha platform was used to accuse Akali leaders, particularly Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal, of being responsible for these incidents and hobnobbing with the controversial chief of Dera Sacha Sauda, who has been convicted of rape, for political gains. The Akali Dal legislators walked out of the house, making it even easier for both the government and other opposition parties to blame them for all of Punjab’s troubles. It proved to be an opportunity for the ruling party to play the Panthic card to garner political support in the upcoming panchayat elections and 2019 general elections, reminding the traditional Panthic voters of the Akali Dal’s failure to check repeated acts of sacrilege.
Religion has always been at the core of politics in Punjab, and the Sikhs have dominated the political scene since the 1966 reorganisation of the state. The state government’s attempt to make religious sentiments the basis of law is a deadly recipe for competitive political mobilisation. The people of Punjab have suffered for years thanks to the mixing of religion and politics. The rise of terrorist violence in the state in 1978 was not only the result of the conflict between the followers of the Nirankari faith and those of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, but also flowed from the dirty role played by the then Congress leadership in Punjab, which was meddling in Sikh religious affairs. The Amarinder Singh government’s plan to appropriate religious space in the state is a reminder of those days. It is nothing more than misdirected populism, which not only has the potential to backfire in the near future, but also risks intensifying religious intolerance and radicalism in the state. The blasphemy law is dangerously authoritarian, threatening the liberty of individuals.
The law also falls short on adhering to the secular principles listed in India’s constitution, as the Bill has only listed a few holy books of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, ignoring the other religions practiced in the country. It also does not define the term “sacrilege”, leaving it to be misused as a vague notion defined as “intention to hurt religious feelings,” which can be easily challenged in a court of a law. There are enough existing laws to deal with those who ignite hatred or enmity between different communities or hurt religious sentiments. This Bill, it appears, is not supposed to fill a legal gap, but rather to fit the political motivations of the lawmakers. It is even more worrisome that none of the participants in the debate opposed the Bill, or even parts of the Bill. Instead, there was a competitive agreement on pushing the state further into the domain of religion.
Even aside from the technical shortcomings of the Bill, it cannot be ignored that any sort of blasphemy law can have disastrous consequences in a multicultural country like India. While religion may have been used as a tool to woo voters for decades, this kind of law is a direct attack on the basic foundations of the nation. Many critics have equated it with the blasphemy law in Pakistan, where it has been used by the state and religious groups to terrorise minorities on the one hand and shield the system against any sort of rational analysis or criticism. The world-over, blasphemy laws are seen as tools of oppression rather than a symbol of cultural and religious affirmation.
It is likely that the Punjab government has raised this issue now, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in order to benefit from it politically. This will likely disturb the present peace and lead to communal tensions in the state. The Justice Ranjit Singh Commission constituted by the Congress government has explicitly accused ex-chief minister Badal of not only mismanaging the issue, but also pressurising the head granthi of the Takht Damdama Sahib and other Sikh priests to pardon the Dera Sacha Sauda chief after he was accused of blasphemy for impersonating Guru Gobind Singh, in order to win the votes of Dera followers. This has put the Akalis on the back foot in the coming general elections, and been a blow to the traditional Panthic vote base of the SAD.
However, critics have accused the Congress party of exploiting this opportunity in order to overcome the 1984 massacres issue and project a secular character by misleading common people, using religious sentiments to polarise voters. These short-term gains for the party can lead to devastating outcomes in the coming years not only for Punjab, but across the country. Given that a blasphemy law can be used as a dangerous tool against minorities and the marginalised, the BJP government at the Centre may choose to follow in Punjab’s footsteps.
If this law becomes a reality, it will give a new impetus to fundamentalist forces and organisations in the state. Enforcing religious beliefs as societal norms has dangerous implications. The state government, while bringing religion into politics, does not seem to be addressing the root causes of what happened in 2015. What they have done, though, is create a law that can be misused for petty and narrow political interests, and create a chilling effect on the freedom of speech. The most disturbing dimension of this Bill is that it may be used against human rights activists, leaders of people’s movement and those who are demanding justice from the people in power.
Jagrup Singh Sekhon teaches political Science at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.