Penguin's decision last week to pulp all unsold copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger and withdraw those in circulation, in response to a case filed by a fringe group, evoked a range of reactions.

Some blamed the main petitioner, Dinanath Batra, of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, for being intolerant. Many criticised Penguin for caving in too easily, while yet others held Doniger’s supposedly sub-standard scholarship responsible.

Almost all of them, however, agreed about one thing: more than anything else, it was the law to blame. The offending statute, Section 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code, appeared no less than seven times in Batra’s petition. It punishes with a fine and imprisonment speech and writing that ''with deliberate and malicious intention'' insults the “religious beliefs” of any class of citizens.

Given the almost universal condemnation that this law has received, it does make you wonder how it ever came about. To understand that, we’d have to journey back to 1920s Lahore.

The Punjab was then undergoing religious ferment. Groups such as the Ahmadiyas, Hindu Sabha, Arya Samaj, the Khilafat committee and Singh Samaj jockeyed for power. The repeal of the Press Act and the consequent spread of the print media, which was largely organised along communal lines, made mobilisation easier.

It was in this atmosphere that a person named Rajpal published an anonymous pamphlet called Rangila Rasul (Colourful Prophet), which made some scandalous references to Prophet Muhammad's private life. The book was a success and its first thousand copies sold out quickly, leading to preparations for a second edition.

Soon, however, protests by Muslims against the book brought the issue to the notice of the government, which sanctioned prosecution of Rajpal under (the still extant) Section 153 (A) of the IPC, which penalises the promotion of enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, etc. In the meantime, the situation in Punjab and the wider region went from bad to worse, with violence breaking out in Kohat and Rawalpindi.

In this atmosphere, Justice Dilip Singh of the Lahore High Court, while noting that the pamphlet was scurrilous, nonetheless found Rajpal not guilty. As per the court, satirical writings against deceased religious figures did not necessarily promote enmity between groups. Hence, this particular incident was not an offense under 153 (A). However, even as he delivered this verdict, in view of the worsening communal situation, Singh also noted that “a clause might well be added to section 295 by which the publication of pamphlets published with the intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person or of insulting the religion of any person might be made criminal.”

This unexpected ruling -- “I can only say that the judgment astonishes me," the governor of the Punjab wrote -- inflamed passions and was one of the major causes of rioting in Lahore in May 1927. The British were alarmed and took Justice Dilip Singh’s advice and promptly enacted Section 295 (A).

Even at the time though, there was unease over the implications of the bill. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was a member of the committee that framed the act, tried to stress the fact that 295 (A) should apply only to genuine cases of deliberate and malicious intent and "the fundamental principle that those who are engaged in historical works, those who are engaged in the ascertainment of truth and those who are engaged in bona fide and honest criticisms of a religion shall be protected'."

However, in the Doniger case, 295 (A) was used precisely as a stick against a genuine work of history, a point that goes to show that the original intent of 295 (A) does not stand at all in practice.

Even before the Doniger case, there have been numerous ridiculous applications of 295 (A). In 1932, Angaray, a collection of Urdu short stories by Rashid Jahan — Ismat Chughtai’s literary mentor — was banned because its progressive content rubbed some clerics the wrong way. In 1998, the Marathi play Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy (“This is Nathuram Godse Speaking”) was banned because it apparently outraged the feelings of some followers of Gandhi, thus literally equating the teachings of the Mahatma with a religion.

In 2006, Ravi Shastri was booked for “hurting religious feelings” by reportedly eating beef during a Test match in Johannesburg. As could be expected, the law has been used against MF Hussain for his paintings of Bharat Mata. Then in November 2012, the Maharashtra Police charged Shaheen Dhada for hurting religious sentiments because she had questioned the total shutdown of Bombay for the funeral of Bal Thackeray.

Then in 2009, the police booked the editor of The Statesman for publishing an article titled, Why should I respect oppressive religions?. The key point to note from this incident is that in spite of this booking, there were widespread protests by Muslims in Calcutta over this issue, showing that 295 (A) fails in its primary motive, that of maintaining the peace.

As bad as things are in India, Pakistan, which also inherited 295 (A) from the Raj, took matters to a whole new level of ridiculousness. It actually strengthened its blasphemy laws, with Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq introducing Sections 295 (B) and 295 (C), which deal with the desecration of the Quran and insults against Prophet Mohammed.

While from 1927 to 1986, there have been only seven legal cases of blasphemy, from 1986 onwards, as many as 4,000 cases have been reported in Pakistan. The most famous, if indirect, victim of this madness was Salman Taseer, who was gunned down by his own guard for supporting a poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy. In a throwback to the primal sin of 295 (A), Taseer’s killer was compared with Ilm-ud-din, the crazed fanatic who had murdered Rajpal for publishing Rangila Rasul.

G Sampath, writing on this very issue in Mint, described the takeover of Hinduism by the Hindutva fringe by using the term “Talibanisation”. In the context of Pakistan, Talibanisation was aided and abetted by its antediluvian blasphemy laws. India should learn its lesson and stay as far away as possible from the whole concept. 295 (A) must go. It has no place in a modern republic.