Punjab's proposed amendment to blasphemy law Section 295 AA: Amarinder's move arms religious fanatics against free speech

The Punjab government's proposed decision to amend Section 295 AA, a law which makes acts of sacrilege against the holy books — Guru Granth Sahib, Gita, Quran, Bible — of major religions punishable with life imprisonment, is expected to cause quite an uproar as the bill will be tabled in Punjab assembly on Tuesday.

Politicians who fail to give schools and jobs to Indians often give them religion. On 21 August, Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh announced that his cabinet has decided to bring an amendment to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) "to make sacrilege of all religious texts punishable with life imprisonment". A legislation to this effect was introduced in the Punjab Legislative Assembly starting on 24 August.

The proposed law inserts Section 295AA to the IPC to provide: "whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Geeta, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life." For the past few centuries, there has been a movement of ideas worldwide to separate religion from the state. Chief Minister Amarinder is seeking to revert this process of enlightenment.

File image of Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh. AFP

File image of Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh. AFP

The attitudes of Indians are predominantly religious in orientation. Recently, India has witnessed a wave of violence in the name of religion. Many allegedly took law in their hands to kill Muslims on the pretext of cow protection. Excessive role of religion gives birth to vigilantism in our society. A challenging task, therefore, for opinion makers, legislators, social workers and writers is to curtail the role of religion in society.

But Amarinder is not interested in this task. He wants to give more of religion to people. In recent decades, India has witnessed different types of radicalisation of youths based on religion and ideology. Youths radicalised by Naxalism have gone from universities into jungles to fight against the state. Youths radicalised by jihadi groups have travelled to Afghanistan and Syria to fight for Islam. Hindu groups have been accused of exploding bombs in Muslim religious places.

But, what is far worrisome is that Chief Minister Amarinder heads the government of a state that was engulfed in religious fire not long ago. Radicalisation of Sikhs in Punjab in the 1980s not only threatened the territorial integrity of India but also cost Indira Gandhi her life, a fact that should have kept the chief minister alive to the dangers of excessive religion. Also, it doesn't appear that he has learnt anything about secularism from his days in the Indian Army.

In the fight for civilisation, Amarinder represents the forces of darkness. His legislation is a blasphemy law that will gladden the hearts of religious forces in India. Holy scriptures of various religions need to be examined, critiqued and challenged so that the followers of those religions can move on a path of enlightenment, away from religion into the embrace of science and rational thinking. By enacting the blasphemy law, the former soldier is closing the minds of Indians.

Muslims look 1,400 years back for what a good society should look like. Hindus look 5,000 years back. Americans look into the future and are set to land on Mars in the mid-2030s, possibly on Titan someday. The US, Russia and China are the only three nations that have sent a human into space. Therefore, the announcement by Narendra Modi on Independence Day to send an Indian into space by 2022 is a bold step to inject among Indian minds an attitude to look forward.

But Amarinder's blasphemy law seeks to push Indians deep into the dark ages – a period of intellectual darkness that descended on the European societies after the fall of the Romans and lasted about ten centuries. Galileo, upholding Nicolaus Copernicus's view, argued that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun. For stating this science, Galileo was convicted in 1633 of heresy by the church and given life imprisonment, a jail term also proposed by Amarinder.

India is already where Europe was during the dark ages. From Kohima to Goa and from Kashmir to Kanniyakumari, bookstores are devoid of books on science and reason. Indians do not write books on science. Indian youths, emerging from universities with BTech and MSc degrees, have surrendered their minds before gods and goddesses. We are interested in sending Indians into space but do not respect science. Consequently, we go to work as "digital coolies" in the US.

If the idea is to curb hate speech, existing laws in India are already excessive. Under Section 295A of IPC, anyone can be jailed for three years for "deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs." Sections 505-1(b), 505-1(c) and 505(2) also provide for 3-5 years of jail term for causing public mischief and religious hatred. Sections 153(A) and 153(B) also are used to prevent religious and national disharmony.

In fact, these sections of the IPC are a big impediment to reasoned debate in India. Free speech, when exercised by individuals, challenges the orthodoxies of minds and empowers the progress of societies. Free speech is the engine of democracies. Article 19-1(a) of the Constitution guarantees a fundamental right that "all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression." The framers of the Constitution chose not to make blasphemy a restriction on free speech. But Jawaharlal Nehru expanded restrictions on free speech by the first amendment in 1951.

In India, there has been a long tradition of free speech, which is now under attack from a range of forces who have roots in religion and institutions of the government in India. In 2017, a group of University of Lucknow students, including girls, spent three weeks in jail for showing black flags to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Indian youths are being imprisonment for posting political comments on Facebook and other social media. This is an attack on our democratic tenets.

Amarinder's proposed law seeks to do two things. One, it arms religious forces that seek to curb free speech in Indian society, enabling them to threaten and harass individuals in the name of so-called hurt religious sentiments. Two, it gives more muscle to the police and politicians to harass critics for political purposes, thereby undermining the secular morality of the Constitution. In doing so, he is also out to prove that the Congress does not stand for secularism.

In Pakistan, blasphemy laws are being wildly misused by religious groups to initiate fake court cases against the weak minorities such as the Christians, Hindus and Ahmadi Muslims. In 2011, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, an elite commando deployed to protect Salman Taseer, the liberal governor of Punjab, assassinated him for advocating reform in blasphemy laws. We understand that Chief Minister Amarinder lives next door to Pakistan, but he doesn't have to go Pakistan's way.

The author is a former BBC journalist and a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. He tweets @tufailelif.


Updated Date: Aug 28, 2018 07:56 AM

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