Incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs, in October 2015 in Punjab evoked widespread public concern and violent protest. They also led to competitive populism among the Akalis and the Congress with an eye on the then-impending Assembly elections.
Recently, while the erstwhile Parkash Singh Badal government’s move to expand the scope of the state’s desecration law providing for life imprisonment for blasphemy was rejected by the Centre for being specific to the Sikhs while ignoring blasphemy in other religions, the Congress government of Amarinder Singh came up with an amendment which sought to meet the objection by including the holy texts of the Hindus, the Muslims and the Christians besides the Sikhs in the revised anti-blasphemy law.
Both the Akali-initiated law and the subsequent Congress-inspired one were clearly exercises in haste to appease Sikh sentiment and to earn brownie points. What else must one make of the fact that even the latest one overlooked the need to include religions like Jainism and Buddhism, among other listed religions in India.
What the latest amendment has sought to do is to add Section 295AA to the Indian Penal Code to make “injury, damage or sacrilege to Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people a crime punishable with life imprisonment”.
The changes would now go to the Centre again for ratification but after the bitter experience of how the blasphemy law in Pakistan has been misused to target the minorities, adequate homework needs to be done to build in safeguards against misuse.
Pakistan has indeed seen some horrifying examples of the misuse of the whole issue of the blasphemy law. We have the ugly example of a prominent former journalist and member of its Parliament, Sherry Rehman, who had moved a private member’s bill to amend the blasphemy law, seeking introduction of provisions to prevent its misuse and reduced sentencing, leading to facing stiff opposition which led to her bill being withdrawn.
Rehman, an inveterate crusader for human rights, had a case slapped against her for committing blasphemy ironically for criticising blasphemy laws.
People on the streets were baying for her blood for being critical of a law that had seen thousands in Pakistan either thrown into jails or executed for ‘hurting religious sentiments’.
In January, 2011, Pakistan’s Punjab province governor, Salmaan Taseer, was shot dead while he was getting into his car in an Islamabad market. Taseer was a target of attack over his defence of a Christian woman who was condemned to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
A month later, religious minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who spoke out against the law, was shot dead in Islamabad. This was ostensibly to deter critics of the law.
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Ironically, vested interests used the law to use religion itself to kill those who spoke out against it. While Pakistan is a theocratic state where the minorities have been poorly treated all along, there can be no guarantee that someday in India’s Punjab too, the blasphemy law would not be misused grievously.
In a recent case in Haryana, comedian Kiku Sharda was arrested for mimicking Sacha Sauda sect chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who is currently in jail for having raped women who came to him for spiritual guidance. The charge against Sharda was that he had hurt sentiments of Gurmeet’s followers.
Sharda was booked under section 295A of the IPC (outraging religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious belief). Though this was a rare case, it is a pointer to how laws like the blasphemy law can be misused by vested interests.
Instead of rushing into a law or a provision that is intended to help the minorities but in effect proves counter-productive, it would be wise to ensure safeguards against its misuse. The motivation should be genuine protection of minorities. At the same time, the scope of the new law ought to be extended to all religions in India and not confined to the four major ones. Read More OPINION