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Dear Captain Amarinder Singh, What in God’s Name Are You Doing?

Unnecessary, irrational, unconstitutional – everything wrong with the Punjab Cabinet’s new sacrilege bill.

Published
Opinion
7 min read
Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh
i

To: The Hon’ble Chief Minister of Punjab

CC: Mr Rahul Gandhi, AICC President

Sub: New Law on Sacrilege of Religious Texts

Respected sir,

I hope this letter finds you in good health and spirits. Unfortunately, I am writing to you about something less than pleasant, and so that’s all the pleasantries we have time for.

With all due respect, sir, I have to ask – what on earth were you thinking when your Cabinet decided to introduce a new blasphemy offence in Punjab? What possible reason could there be for “sacrilege of all religious texts” to be punishable with life imprisonment?

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India’s Existing Laws Which Cover This Issue

I mean, sure, we understand that your new Section 295AA of the Indian Penal Code is meant as a response to those incidents in 2015 where the Guru Granth Sahib was desecrated. But what is the need for introducing this provision, when sections 295 and 295A of the IPC already cover what happened back then?

Maybe you just forgot that India already had such laws. Maybe it’s just a little misunderstanding, an oversight – it can be difficult to keep track of all the different legal provisions which punish something or the other, after all. For your reference, here’s what Section 295 of the IPC punishes:

Destroying, damaging or defiling any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with intention of insulting religion of any class, or knowing that this will be considered an insult.

That’s pretty straightforward, wouldn’t you say? Any injury or damage to a religious text like the Guru Granth Sahib would clearly fall within the bounds of this section. And if you think that’s not enough, section 295A punishes any deliberate and malicious acts intended to insult a religion.

So, now that that’s settled, you can just forget about this little idea which isn’t even topical given the complete absence of such incidents since 2015, and get back to the real issues plaguing Punjab, right? You know, the things you promised to work on, like employment, and the drug problem.

But then again, you knew all about these provisions of the law already, didn’t you? You’re no hapless media house that ignores the law because it’s, well, ignorant of the law . You knew full well that there already were offences in the IPC dealing with all of this – if nothing else, because of all the controversy when your predecessors in government tried to introduce a similar law for damage to the Guru Granth Sahib. A law which you yourself withdrew last year.

I wonder why, despite this knowledge, you decided to revive this rotten red herring all over again. Could it have had anything to do with the fact that the punishment under existing laws is ‘only’ two years (section 295) or three years (section 295A)? Could it be that giving life imprisonment would have emotive impact, would make people in Punjab think you were actually doing something for them – maybe even distract them from any other failings of your government?

Surely it’s not that your party is trying to pander to the paranoid conspiracy theorists who are worried that their religious freedom in India is threatened. Surely you don’t think this will distract the average god-fearing Punjabi and make them think you’re trying to protect their faith, thereby making them want to vote for you in the future. Surely you’re not going to whip out the communal harmony card, and claim that this daft law will help deter disharmony and violence, instead of actually ensuring that through good administration.

Oh wait, you already did that last one in your press release, never mind.

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Why This Proposed Offence is Dangerous

You know what, perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps you were just trying to do this all in good faith, and didn’t realise it was such an inept idea that even Donald Trump would think twice about doing it (before then doing it, obviously). Sure, this plan is ill-conceived, a threat to freedom of expression and most likely unconstitutional, but we don’t need to presume any malice, or anything like that.

Of course, it is pretty obvious what’s wrong with your proposed section 295AA. No? That’s ok, even a ten-year-old could explain this, so I should also be able to make a decent stab at it.

See, according to your own press release, this new offence will say that:

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.”

One has to commend your drafting team for being quite succinct, but unfortunately while brevity is the soul of wit, it is not the soul of coherence or legality. Here are some quick questions that arise out of the minimalistic approach to drafting your team has followed:

  1. What the bloody hell is “sacrilege” supposed to mean?
  2. What in the name of heaven do you mean by “intention to hurt the religious feelings”?
  3. And who in god’s name are “the people”?

Good Lord, did I just blaspheme in those questions? After all, this kind of language used to be considered ‘sacrilege’ back in the days of the Spanish Inquisition. Since we don’t have any explanation for what sacrilege damn well means, who knows what it could cover! Jesus, what if I’ve hurt ‘the people’s’ religious feelings? Hey Ram, this is awful!

On the bright side, maybe now you see how terribly vague and ambiguous the concept of sacrilege is in your precious section 295AA. Sacrilege covers not just desecration of some religious thing, but also covers all manner of disrespect or irreverence.

What happens when someone says making a joke about Adam and Eve and Steve is sacrilege against the Bible?

What happens when someone says that disregarding the obscure passage in the Quran that permits men to strike their wives, is sacrilege against it?

What happens when someone says calling the Bhagvad Gita a boring read, is sacrilege against the Gita?

What happens when someone says that not covering the Guru Granth Sahib after ardas in a Gurudwara, is sacrilege against it?

After all, you just have to hurt the feelings of some happily amorphous “people”, right? Even the existing provisions (Sections 295 and 295A), problematic though they are, make more effort at delineating who needs to be insulted to attract the offence.

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Why This New Offence Would be Unconstitutional

Vagueness isn’t a good look when it comes to drafting laws, you know. You no doubt remember the Shreya Singhal case, where the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, for being vague and unclear and therefore an unreasonable restriction on the right to freedom of speech and expression (Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution). In that case, the terms used in Section 66A were “open-ended and undefined” – something which they have in common with “sacrilege” and “hurting the religious feelings of the people”.

In the triple talaq judgment, Justice Nariman of the apex court also upheld arbitrariness as a ground to declare a legislation as violative of Article 14 of the Constitution. If a law is manifestly arbitrary – which means it has been made by a legislature capriciously, irrationally or without a sound basis, or is excessive and disproportionate – it should be struck down.

Section 295AA is unnecessary given the existing provisions of law, makes special rules for four holy books only (what about the Book of Zoroaster, or the Torah, or some other Hindu texts?), and has been drafted negligently. It also creates an excessive punishment – life imprisonment – which also seems disproportionate.

But this proposed offence is problematic for more reasons than just that. It’s not just that this provision technically violates some constitutional provisions. What you’re trying to do is criminalise blasphemy, which is anathema in a country which is supposed to be secular and progressive. Even when the restrictions on free speech were introduced in the Constitution, one should remember, blasphemy was not one of them – making up this new law is a vast overreach on the rights of citizens of this country.

One could probably also build a reasonable case to say that punishing something like sacrilege also runs contradictory to the right to privacy - since even private expressions of discontent against a particular text could be considered sacrilegious, if overheard by the wrong person.

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It’s Not Too Late

Look, I think you get the idea. This law is poorly worded and could have serious implications for free speech and privacy. Even without going into its possible misuse, it’s arbitrary and therefore unconstitutional.

I get that this is all about building an image for yourself, and getting votes and all that jazz, and so you may not have given much thought to this legality thing, but this isn’t something you can just ignore, you know.

And think about the company you’re keeping. There aren’t a lot of countries around the world which still have blasphemy laws, and the ones which do tend to be either theocracies, or autocracies, or both.

Your provision seems quite similar to Section 295B of the Pakistan Penal Code, for instance, which is part of a set of laws which, according to Freedom House “foster an environment of intolerance and impunity, and lead to violations of a broad range of human rights” and are also “routinely used to exact revenge, apply pressure in business or land disputes, and for other matters entirely unrelated to blasphemy.”

Experts have also noted how blasphemy laws are abused by governments to silence opposition, critics and dissidents. Religious extremists have exploited such laws to justify attacks on minorities. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to spell it out for you just how dangerous having such a law could be in the Indian context.

The good thing is that this draft bill hasn’t even been introduced in the Punjab Legislative Assembly yet, let alone reached the President for assent. It wouldn’t be that bad a hit to your pride to just withdraw the proposal, would it? Given it will probably get junked by the president or the Supreme Court, in fact, it would probably be less of an embarrassment to just drop it now and pretend it never happened.

I hope you don’t mind this letter too much and that you will set aside any anger you have to consider these points. Actually, who are we kidding, you’re going to dislike me quite intensely, but I’m sure that won’t stop you from doing the right thing.

Yours sincerely,

A concerned, atheist, half-Punjabi

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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