Sacrilege Bill finally gets Punjab Assembly nod

All major parties in Punjab, with an eye on panthic votes, have jointly passed a Bill seeking to provide stringent punishment to those who injure religious feelings or defile places of worship

All major parties in Punjab, particularly the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal, have a holier than thou attitude when it comes to protecting Sikh maryada or tenets of Sikhism. They have been competing with each other obviously to garner the panthic votes which constitute a massive vote bank in the state. Its latest reflection is found in the Punjab Assembly passing a Bill seeking to provide stringent punishment to those who injure religious feelings or defile places of worship. Since none of the parties could afford to be seen opposing such an amendment, the Bill was passed unanimously.

The Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, which was passed by the Punjab Assembly, seeks to insert Section 295AA, and sought to amend Section 295, which provides for punishing those “injuring or defiling place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention to insult their religion, or with the knowledge that such destruction, damage or defilement would be considered as an insult to their religion”. The amendment provides for imprisonment for 10 years to those found guilty.

The Bill, first passed by the assembly in 2016, when the previous Shiromani Akali Dal — Bhartiya Janata Party Government was in power in the State, had proposed life imprisonment for sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib only, following a series of incidents of desecration of the holy book in different parts of the State. The spate of cases of desecrations began in late 2015 and carried on for a couple of months. Two persons, who had been protesting the incidents, were also killed after police opened fire on them.

The government was at its wit’s end as the incidents were spreading to other areas. While there were allegations that members of the Dera Sacha Sauda could be behind the incidents, no such charge was proved. There was only an apprehension that this was the result of the faux pas over the grant of pardon to her Dera chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh who was last year convicted to 20 years in prison for rape of two sadhvis.

He was at the Centre of controversy over Sikh religious issues and the Sikh clergy had excommunicated him from the community for alleged acts of blasphemy. The Dera had a huge following and the political leaders from various parties had been going to the Dera to seek his ‘blessings’.

Evidently with this in mind, and at the direction of the SAD which controls the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the Mini Parliament of the Sikhs, and which in turn controls the Sikh clergy, decided to ‘pardon’ the Dera chief and take him back in the community. This ‘pardon’ had led to a major uproar among the Sikh community. The fundamentalists and the hardliners took strong objection and led protests against the action of the Sikh clergy.

Subsequently the ‘pardon’ was withdrawn due to the mounting protests and it was under these circumstances that incidents of sacrilege began getting reported from certain areas of the state. The incidents were certainly motivated and choreographed by some people or organisations to vitiate the peaceful atmosphere prevailing in the state. This forced the government to bring in the Bill to provide stringent punishment to those indulging in blasphemy. The bill was passed unanimously as again none of the parties was willing to be seen defending the sacrilege. However, the Union Home ministry returned the proposal on the ground that it was discriminatory and went against the secular character of our constitution. By the time the Bill was returned there was a change of government and Capt Amarinder Singh formed the Congress government in the state.

Even during the run up to the elections, Capt Amarinder had made clear that he would do a “better job” than the Akalis to protect the “Sikh maryada”.  While SAD believes that it represents the Sikhs, Capt Amarinder Singh had been criticising the Akalis for being lax. To ‘prove’ his commitment to eliminate the menace of drugs from Punjab, Capt Amarinder had even taken a public oath by placing his hand over a Gutka.

The SAD too had become more strident in its attempts to maintain its hegemony over the SGPC and the Sikh clergy. Of late, however, there have been indications of the panthic vote moving away from it. The party had been making attempts to ensure that only the baptised Sikhs could vote for the SGPC and had taken help of its coalition partner at the Centre, the BJP, to bring in an amendment to debar non baptised Sikhs from voting for the organisation. The matter is now under judicial scrutiny.

Capt Amarinder Singh, who led the Congress to victory last year, didn’t forget his demand for punishment to those involved in the series of incidents of sacrilege in 2015 and set up a judicial commission to probe the incidents. The report presented in the Punjab Assembly recently indicted the previous government and asserted that the former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal was aware of the tension building up and yet his government did not take adequate steps to check violence or prevent police firing in which two villagers were killed.

Justice Ranjit Singh (retd) commission into sacrilege incidents and subsequent police firing in 2015 in Punjab pointed a finger at former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal for police action in which two protesters were killed. The report said it was “clear that the (then) Chief Minister and the CMO were apparently kept in the loop about the action proposed by the police and the action finally taken at Kotkapura.”

The one-man judicial commission had probed the sacrilege incidents reported from Burj Jawahar Singh Wala, Bargari, Gurusar and Mallke villages and police firing at Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura on Sikh protesters in 2015. The report recommended action against police officers responsible for failure to control the situation. The report, which has been rejected by the Akalis as an instance of political vendetta, has been forwarded to the administration to initiate action.

The previous government had handed over inquiry into the series of incidents of sacrilege to the CBI but the Amarinder government has decided to take back the investigations back from the CBI and create its own Special Investigation Team to expeditiously Investigate and bring guilty to book.

SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal has said that the “real motive of the report is to render the Sikh community leaderless. It’s a cheap drama written, produced, directed and choreographed by Capt Amarinder Singh and his men”. It is in the light of the continued slugfest and Capt Amarinder wanting to be seen “more Akali than the Akalis” that the latest move to amend the law on sacrilege has been proposed.

Article 295AA, which has been sought to be inserted in the law says : “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life”.

Though the Bill passed by the Assembly was whetted by senior lawyers, it is unlikely to have smooth passage with the Centre. It had earlier returned the Bill passed by the Assembly in 2016 with two objections : One that it was not secular in nature and provided punishment only if the sacrilege involved Guru Granth Sahib. Secondly it had pointed out that the punishment of life imprisonement for 10 years for even the first offence was too harsh.

While the current Assembly has sought to circumvent the first objection by including holy books from other religions as well, it has sought to maintain the punishment as provided in the previous bill.

Independent thinkers and those keen on strengthening democracy believe that the new law, if given the green flag by the Centre, can lead to serious consequences on the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution and that it would put the clock back on the march of the civilisation. They point out that there would be ample scope for misuse of the law and that it could prove counter productive.