Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management
In February this year, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh took a strong and principled stand during the Canadian Prime Minister's visit to Punjab. He first refused to meet with the latter on the grounds that his delegation included his defence minister, who Singh identified as a Khalistani sympathiser. Subsequently, pressured by the Centre, he used the meeting to speak unequivocally of the dangers of Khalistani extremism and Canada's unacceptable leniency with regard to Sikh extremist activities on and emanating from its soil. He also handed over a list of nine Canada-based Khalistani radicals, requesting action against them. Ottawa failed to act significantly on Singh's list, but the Chief Minister's courageous stand rightly won accolades from the nation.
In seeking to introduce a 'blasphemy law' in Punjab, however, Singh has exposed his government to ridicule, and to accusations of precisely the patterns of appeasement of which Canada is guilty. Sikh radicalisation is presently receiving increasing support from Pakistan and elements within the diaspora. Such efforts to conciliate the most aggressive, immoderate and narrow-minded religious constituencies in the state, can only prove counter-productive. There is already a rising tyranny of intolerance and intimidation across the country under the political dispensation at the Centre. Singh's party proclaims itself politically opposed to this ideological stream, and at this time should articulate a strong position in favour of constitutional freedoms and against polarising identity politics. Instead, it is gifting another weapon to the most bigoted elements in his State.
It is abundantly clear that this initiative is no more than symbolism to assuage radicals, and has nothing to do with any imperative of law or any deficit in existing provisions. Indeed, the State has found rare occasion to use existing provisions in the past, which collectively provide wide scope to cover all speech and acts that cause insult to any religion, or to promote enmity on the basis of religion, race, etc., and the even wider offence of imputations or assertions prejudicial to national integration.
Prescribing life imprisonment for 'sacrilege' is not just excessive, in this context, but also futile; the deterrent impact of law has more to do with the certainty and speed of punishment, rather than its quantum, and there is little possibility that justice administration is going to improve in any dramatic measure in the foreseeable future. In any event, after the desecration incidents of 2015, there has been no subsequent epidemic of such occurrences to suggest that harsher laws are an urgent imperative.
The rationale of the present action is misdirected populism, an effort to appropriate and expand the original legislation proposed by the precedent Akali Dal Government, which sought to bring acts of 'sacrilege' against the Granth Sahib under the enhanced penalty (legislation that was rejected by the Centre on grounds of discrimination). This is the corrosive pattern of competitive communalism that pushed Punjab into the tragedy of terrorism in the past, and that again threatens to intensify religious radicalism in the State. It is through such actions that the creeping erosion of secular and constitutional values occurs; it was through a comparable process that religious extremism took root and transformed into the virulent Khalistani movement, as political space was ceded in slow stages to the extremist constituency.
The drafting of the proposed bill is extraordinarily shoddy, hastily adding the Bible, Qur'an and Bhagwad Gita as objects of potential 'sacrilege', to the Granth Sahib (of the Akali draft). But what about texts and holy icons of the Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians and numberless primal indigenous faiths? Can we subject these to mutilation or contempt without inviting a comparable ire of law? And who decided that the Bhagwad Gita is the Hindu equivalent of the Bible, Quran or Granth Sahib? What of the Vedas? The Ramayana? The larger Mahabharata, of which the Gita is just a part? The more it seeks to pander to religious extremism, the more will the state become inextricably entangled in such absurdities. Crucially, the more the Congress leadership seeks to accommodate the extremist religious constituency, the more ground will it relinquish to political formations that are constructed primarily around communal identity.
There are more fundamental consequences involved. The most important is the destruction of the crucial distinction between 'respecting religions' and state endorsement of religious bigotry and motivated disruption (the latter is what manifested itself in the orchestrated violence following the 2015 'sacrilege' incidents). This is the culmination of the progressive privileging of religious discourse and its exclusion from rational review or restraint. Far more than any purported act of 'sacrilege', it is the abuse and exploitation of religion by bigots, charlatans and political opportunists that has brought faith into contempt.
Already, every commentary or film that touches on a subject remotely connected to religion is routinely subjected to intimidation, vandalism, blackmail and violence. Not only has the scope of rational discourse and reform of religion diminished, every religious order appears to be experiencing a regression to primitive and violent interpretations. In India's contemporary politics, religious crime and aggravation are increasingly rewarded, often by the state.
A range of religious 'traditions', moreover, have long been the source of great oppression and injustice. Demonstrative acts of protest by exploited and abused sections of society may well have a ring of blasphemy or sacrilege to them, at least in the eyes of the privileged orthodoxy. It is through such protests and critiques that religions have undergone reform across the world.
A restoration of sanity to the system can only be achieved through a renewal of secular constitutional values, and an unambiguous rejection of competitive communalism and the related criminalisation of purported acts of 'blasphemy' and 'sacrilege'.
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