by Ratnakar Tripathy
On 22nd March, the Punjab government passed an amendment bill that will ensure life imprisonment for cases of sacrilege against the book in Sikhism, instead of the maximum of ten year imprisonment followed earlier. This comes in the wake of incidents of tearing of Guru Granth Sahib last year, the fact being that the government has been unable to nab the culprits and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. It is questionable if the government even has the will to do so. The Punjab government hopes that its deficient policing may be compensated by stricter laws although what seems more likely is that the new law will be applied wilfully in undeserving or inappropriate cases and huge punishments will be doled out for minor breaches. In fact the political attitude behind the move indicates that sacrilege is likely to be seen where it may not exist at all. Such laws can be put to deadly use by a repressive government and may further tilt the balance against the citizens in the favour of the state. That the individual and the communities require such rigorous protection is being forgotten by the politicians these days who may end up paying a heavy price for their thoughtlessness.
In another comparable instance, the Maharashtra Assembly suspended an MLA Waris Pathan from AIMIM for refusing to say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ through a unanimous vote – parties like the Congress and the NCP that claim to be the opposition went entirely along with the BJP to prove their patriotic credentials, although the real motive was to punish the AIMIM for cutting into their Muslim votes. In this case again a dangerous precedent has been set and it may well cause heartaches to the Congress and NCP in the near future when they may be targeted similarly and will have no argument left to defend themselves.
The Punjab bill is of course to be seen in the context of the desperation of the current Shiromani Akali Dal [SAD] to come back to power in Punjab in 2017 in the face of severe unpopularity. Creating a crisis over the construction of the Yamuna-Sutlej canal through the defiance of the Supreme Court directive, thereby refusing to share water with the neighbouring state Haryana was another recent move to rouse the baser sentiments of the Punjabi voter. Both these measures are likely to rip the democratic fabric of the nation on an immediate basis and will certainly have far-reaching consequences if not undone. The likely consequences of the sacrilege act were apparent on day one when in response to the SAD amendment the opposition leader from the Congress Tirlochan Soondh felt that the amendment’s partiality towards the Sikh religion is unjustifiable and other religions like Hinduism and Islam require similar laws. The leader of the opposition in the Punjab assembly Charanjit Singh Channi claimed that in secularism, all religions require similar treatment, implying that the life term should be applicable to all cases of sacrilege, irrespective of religion. Although in India, we often mean somewhat different things by the term ‘secularism’, this is indeed a completely new spin on the word and a disastrous one at that leading to a theocracy like legal situation, thus far characteristic of states like Pakistan rather than India. According to this version of secularism, laws for sacrilege should be universally applicable and must be highly stringent. As we know there is often a thin line between criticism and sacrilege and for the dogmatic believer there is mostly none. What is remarkable is how even members of the Congress instinctively followed the path of competitive piety rather than question the premise on which the new law is based. The least they could have done is to seek a categorical and concrete definition of sacrilege. To begin with what is the difference, for example, between an act of minor or forgivable disregard or omission and serious sacrilege deserving the ultimate punishment? Such questioning can go a long way in bringing out the insuperable difficulties in defining sacrilege in the democratic framework. To give another example will the law focus primarily on the perception of others or on the willfulness of the specific act? By not asking these vital questions, the opposition in Punjab may be losing their moral and political ground, thus admitting subservience to the SAD bulldozer. Is there a political advantage at all in kowtowing to SAD’s desperate move, given its failure to catch the culprits in the past? Apart from the legal precedent, there is also the question of the political-ideological precedent laid out during the assembly debates. One wonders how much all this will impress the Punjab voter in the coming assembly elections in 2017 and one can only hope that the voter would reject the dangerous rhetoric in the favour of real issues. One must however remember that such laws are not easy to undo in the manner of belling the cat – any government in the future that tries to do so will be seen to be allowing or even encouraging sacrilege.
The suggestion made by the Congress was defeated through a voice vote and the matter was allowed to rest for the time being. But the amendment bill is likely to continue to smoulder and cause more explosions in the future in other states if not Punjab as a legal precedent. Sacrilege may be difficult to define but a government intent on applying it will find it easy to insist and prosecute since in practice it may be even more difficult to prove non-sacrilege. The level of zeal for extreme measures was apparent in a suggestion made by Bikram Majithia, a SAD leader who thought a death sentence is more appropriate for sacrilege cases. These are indeed times when the moderate elements seem to have lost their voice in the face of rising hysteria over all kinds of matters, including patriotism, nationalism, and various countless marks of sundry loyalties.