Several years ago when the Sikh militancy was at its peak, a venerable editor in a popular newspaper began his column thus, “It is twelve o’clock in Punjab and unless something drastic is done to curb the madness…”or words to that effect. Even at that time, someone had filed a case against the editor and the newspaper for hurting the sentiments of the Sikhs, demanding severe punishment for them, but under the proposed changes in the IPC, the editor would have certainly stared at a long time in prison. Instead of junking such retrograde legal stipulations, considering what the Congress Government in Punjab now proposes to do, we might well be enacting our own version of the hated blasphemy law of Pakistan.
Instead of expanding the frontiers of individual freedom, we will be headed in the reverse direction if what the Amarinder Singh Government has proposed passes muster at the Centre. The move is to make sacrilege against the holy books of the major religions punishable with life imprisonment. In 2016, the Akali-BJP Government had passed a law aimed at those committing sacrilege against the Guru Granth Sahib. This had come in the wake of several incidents of tearing and burning of the holy books of the Sikhs in various parts of the State. The ISI was a suspect, which wanted to foment communal trouble. But the Bill then was approved by all parties in the Assembly. It returned by the President since it was a religion-specific. Now, the Amarinder Singh Government has proposed to cure the flaw, extending the protection to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhadwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible. Anyone damaging these holy books will attract the proposed amendment to Section 295-AA of the IPC which seeks to criminalise “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”. The offence will be punishable by life imprisonment.
Aside from the very real threat of abuse of the proposed provision by unscrupulous elements, it will provide a handle to politicians and others in positions of power to harass and persecute their critics and even political rivals. Since the existing Section 295A already provides for a three-year jail sentence to anyone found to be committing sacrilege with the aim of causing public disorder and unrest, the proposed 295AA providing life imprisonment is excessive and open to gross abuse. Sacrilege is a loose, nay, vague term which means different things to different people, depending on their educational and cultural backgrounds. Its ever-present fear would constrict free speech and allow ruling politicians to threaten its invocation to silence critics. It will impose extreme sensitivity and restraint even in private in all matters relating to religion, its practice and traditions. The proposed move which panders to religious extremists must be abandoned forthwith.