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Retired Civil Servants Write Open Letter to Punjab CM on Expansion of Blasphemy Laws

"The need of the hour is for all responsible stakeholders to act to reduce the space provided to religious fundamentalists of all kind – not open up space further to them."

New Delhi: The Punjab government’s controversial decision to amend existing laws to make acts of desecration of holy scriptures – specifically the Guru Granth Sahib, Bhagvad Gita, Quran and Bible –punishable with life imprisonment, has evoked widespread censure. The present amendment, which has been criticised as “excessive” has been introduced amid continuing Sikh anger over nearly 200 incidents of ‘sacrilege’ involving the Guru Granth Sahib.

Approved by the Amarinder Singh cabi­net on August 21, the Punjab assembly approved the insertion of Section 295 AA in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) appli­cable to the state on August 28, replacing an earlier 2016 legislation that provided for similar penal provisions for the desecration of the Sikh holy book. Introduced by the then Akali Dal-BJP government, the earlier bill was rejected by the Central government, which had then said that “all religions must be treated equally”.

In response to Punjab’s move, Constitutional Conduct, a civil society group made up of retired civil servants, has penned an open letter to Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh and to Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

According to the group, instead of “reducing the role of religion from the matters of the state, this move will further consolidate the hold of sectarianism, and strengthen the hands of religious extremists on all sides”.

Calling blasphemy laws “a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression”, the letter says that such laws have been misused world over “against minorities and weaker sections, to harass them, exact revenge and also to settle personal and professional quarrels, all matters entirely unrelated to blasphemy”.

The letter urges the chief minister to withdraw the Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018, and Code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018.

Pointing out how India has already “paid a heavy price for our past sins of pandering to extremist sentiments of various religions for short term political ends, whether it be the Shah Banu case, the Taslima Nasreen case, opening of the gates of Babri Masjid”, it would be prudent, particularly as India inclusive nature is threatened that ” all responsible stakeholders to act to reduce the space provided to religious fundamentalists of all kind”.

Read the full text below:

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Dear Mr. Chief Minister, 

It is with much anguish that we – a group of former civil servants anxious about the alarming decline recently, in secular, democratic and liberal values of the Constitution – write to you, confident that you will not allow political expediency to trump secular principles.

We write to express our alarm at recent reports of your government’s plans to amend the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to make acts of sacrilege against religious books a major offence, punishable with life imprisonment. Our objections, echoing similar disagreements widely expressed in the press, are on several grounds. We hope your cabinet will reconsider this decision, that we consider is not wise or thought through, and will withdraw the amendment bill.

Our main arguments are:

Blasphemy provisions, such as the one planned, go against the very grain of the secular character of our Constitution. Rather than reduce the role of religion from the matters of the state, expected of a secular polity, this move will further consolidate the hold of sectarianism, and strengthen the hands of religious extremists on all sides.

Further, blasphemy laws are a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right. Criminalising sacrilege, and making it a major offence, will create a chilling effect on free speech, giving a handle to anyone claiming to be hurt, to pursue ill-founded prosecutions. This is exactly what is happening. Moreover, it will deter any one from even serious research and re-interpretation of religious texts, which will only encourage religious fundamentalism.

Experience of the implementation of blasphemy laws the world over, point to their being particularly prone to misuse against minorities and weaker sections, to harass them, exact revenge and also to settle personal and professional quarrels, all matters entirely unrelated to blasphemy. (Pew Research Centre, 2016, US Commission on International Religious Freedoms, 2017). Making sacrilege a major offence, wherever it has been affected, has “fostered an environment of intolerance and impunity, and led to violations of a broad range of human rights”.  (Freedom House, 2010).

Provisions already exist to deal with insults to religion. Any further amendments to the existing provisions are not merely unnecessary, but are a retrograde step. Laws that seek to restrict freedoms (speech, belief..) have an insidious quality, in that they proliferate, also making space for more severe versions of the original, further restricting freedoms, and tend to gradually spin out of control.

The proposed amendment is bad in law. It is poorly worded, offences are undefined and open-ended, speaking of ‘sacrilege, and ‘hurt’ caused to ‘people’. It is also arbitrary – religious texts of only four major faiths are included, leaving others out (as far as Hinduism is considered it cites only one text, when there are a hundred other texts held sacred by different sections of Hinduism).   

By prescribing life imprisonment, the proposed amendment makes sacrilege a major offence. This is excessive and disproportionate. Supreme Court has, in its ruling on Sec. 295-A IPC (in Ramjilal Modi vs State of UP, AIR 1957 SC 620) already held that the said provision, that attracts a maximum penalty of four years, punishes only the “aggravated form of insult to religion”.  

We have seen that whenever a legislation has not been sufficiently thought through as to its ramifications, is imprecise in its definition of what constitutes an offence, e.g. ‘sacrilege’ and is capable of multiple interpretations, it lends itself to the gross abuse of power by vested political interests, particularly those that represent sectarian groups, and adds to the potential of increased police repression.

You will appreciate that we have already paid a heavy price for our past sins of pandering to extremist sentiments of various religions for short term political ends, whether it be the Shah Banu case, the Taslima Nasreen case, opening of the gates of Babri Masjid for pooja, banning of various books, paintings etc. This has brought us to a situation today where the very idea of an inclusive, pluralistic, and liberal India and Indian-ness is seriously threatened.    

Our country has recently seen the development of a communally charged environment due to the empowerment of sectarian and illiberal ideas and ideologies, resulting in the targeting of minorities and a general increase in social disharmony. The need of the hour is for all responsible stakeholders to act to reduce the space provided to religious fundamentalists of all kind – not open up space further to them. Additionally, the proposed amendment has the potential to set off competitive mobilisation and copycat blasphemy and sacrilege legislations in other states too. It will only serve to underline divisions and encourage each community to look both over its shoulders as also over the shoulders of others to check what they are doing. It is not difficult to visualise a scenario where such a law can be brutally misused.

The Congress Party has had a chequered history of occasionally fishing in communal waters for short term political ends making it vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. In a situation where the need to uphold our secular values has become more critical than ever before, we believe it is incumbent on you as an influential leader of that party to stand by those values and shun the temptation to score short term political points. We do hope your government will withdraw the Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) bill, 2018 and Code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab Amendment) bill 2018. 

Thank you and sincerely,

SN

Name 

Service

Last post/designation before retirement

1

Gopalan Balagopal

IAS (Retd.)

Former Special Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal

2

Chandrashekhar Balakrishnan

IAS (Retd.)

Former Secretary, Coal, GoI

3

Pradip Bhattacharya

IAS (Retd.)

Former Additional Chief Secretary, Development & Planning and Administrative Training Institute, Govt. of West Bengal

4

Sundar Burra

IAS (Retd.)

Former Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra

5

Kalyani Chaudhuri

IAS (Retd.)

Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal

6

Anna Dani

IAS (Retd.)

Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra

7

Surjit K. Das

IAS (Retd.)

Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Uttarakhand

8

Vibha Puri Das

IAS (Retd.)

Former Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, GoI

9

Nareshwar Dayal

IFS (Retd.)

Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom

10

Keshav Desiraju

IAS (Retd.)

Former Health Secretary, GoI

11

M.G. Devasahayam

IAS (Retd.)

Former Secretary, Govt. of Haryana

12

Sushil Dubey

IFS (Retd.)

Former Ambassador to Sweden

13

Tuktuk Ghosh

IAS (Retd.)

Former Special Secretary and Financial Adviser, Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, Shipping & Tourism, GoI

14

Ravi Vira Gupta

IAS (Retd.)

Former Deputy Governor, Reserve Bank of India

15

Sajjad Hassan

IAS (Retd.)

Former Secretary (Planning), Govt. of Manipur

16

Dr. M.A. Ibrahimi

IAS (Retd.)

Former Chief Secretary (rank), Govt. of Bihar

17

Kamal Jaswal

IAS (Retd.)

Former Secretary, Department of Information Technology, GoI

18

Arun Kumar

IAS (Retd.)

Former Chairman, National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, GoI

19

Brijesh Kumar

IAS (Retd.)

Former Secretary, Department of Information Technology, GoI

20

Harsh Mander

IAS (Retd.)

Govt. of Madhya Pradesh

21

Aditi Mehta

IAS (Retd.)

Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Rajasthan

22

Deb Mukharji

IFS (Retd.)

Former High Commissioner to Bangladesh and Ambassador to Nepal

23

Nagalswamy

IA&AS (Retd.)

Former Principal Accountant General, Tamil Nadu & Kerala

24

Sobha Nambisan

IAS (Retd.)

Former Principal Secretary (Planning), Govt. of Karnataka

25

Amitabha Pande

IAS (Retd.)

Former Secretary, Inter-State Council, GoI

26

Niranjan Pant

IA&AS (Retd.)

Former Deputy Comptroller & Auditor General of India

27

K. Sujatha Rao

IAS (Retd.)

Former Health Secretary, GoI

28

Julio Ribeiro

IPS (Retd.)

Former Adviser to Governor of Punjab & Ambassador to Romania

29

Umrao Salodia

IAS (Retd.)

Former Chairman, Rajasthan Road Transport Corporation, Govt. of Rajasthan

30

Deepak Sanan

IAS (Retd.)

Former Principal Adviser (AR) to Chief Minister, Govt. of Himachal Pradesh

31

N.C. Saxena

IAS (Retd.)

Former Secretary, Planning Commission, GoI

32

Aftab Seth

IFS (Retd.)

Former Ambassador to Japan

33

Raju Sharma

IAS (Retd.)

Former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Uttar Pradesh

34

Hindal Tyabji

IAS (Retd.)

Chief Secretary rank, Govt. of Jammu & Kashmir