The Punjab government on Tuesday decided to expand the scope of India’s desecration law. It proposed to add Section 295AA to the Indian Penal Code to make “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” a crime punishable with life imprisonment.

This comes after the Amarinder Singh government accepted the recommendations of the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission, set up in April 2017 to look into incidents of the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy text of the Sikhs, over the previous two years as well as the police firing on villagers protesting one such incident in October 2015. The firing at Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan had left two people dead and several injured.

The proposed penal provision is informed by the premise that sacrilege leads to the disruption of public order, which the state has a duty to maintain. However, Section 295 AA is no more than duplication of an existing provision on desecration that gives the state sweeping powers to make arrests.

In 2016, the Shiromani Akali Dal government passed a bill in the Assembly making sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib a crime punishable with life imprisonment. It was approved by the governor and sent to the Centre for Presidential assent. But the Centre returned the bill in March 2017, saying its provisions violated the principle of secularism. In May this year, the Congress government, which took power in early 2017, withdrew the bill.

But it has now resurrected the same bill, expanding it to cover the holy books of other religions to ensure it does not fall foul of the constitutional principle of the equality of all religions.

The wide scope of the proposed law raises a critical question: is it time to reconsider the country’s blasphemy laws which have been primarily invoked to silence dissent?

A dangerous idea

To understand why Punjab’s proposed law is a dangerous idea, it is instructive to see where India’s blasphemy laws currently stand. Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code was enacted by the British in 1927 as a tool to quell rising incidents of Hindu-Muslim conflict. The law was in fact a reaction to a judicial order.

In 1925, a pamphlet satirising Prophet Muhammad was widely distributed in the Punjab region, leading to violent protests by Muslims and the arrest of the author under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code for causing enmity between two groups. A court struck down the case against the author, ruling that the pamphlet did not meet the conditions necessary to punish a person under Section 153A. But the court suggested that a separate provision could be enacted to punish those insulting religion and religious feelings. After a committee set up to examine the matter recommended three years imprisonment for the crime, Section 295A was inserted into the Indian Penal Code. It punishes writings or signs which “with deliberate and malicious intention’’ insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of any class of citizens.

Section 295A supplemented Section 295, which is more relevant to what the Punjab government is trying to achieve. Section 295 punishes “injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion”. It states:

“Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defile­ment as an insult to their religion, shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

Clearly, Section 295 already covers the offence of the desecration of religious texts; the term “object” includes sacred texts.

This essentially means the Punjab government is trying to duplicate a law to enhance the punishment it prescribes. What would have been a crime attracting a sentence of two years in prison and a fine is now proposed to get the accused life imprisonment.

Further, while the Punjab government has sought to pass the equality of all religions test by including the Bhagwat Geeta, Quran and Bible in the proposed law, it has left out texts of other religions. This means the objection that the Centre raised to the bill passed by the Akali Dal government still stands. The concurrence of the Union home ministry is necessary for a state’s amendment to the Indian Penal Code to receive the assent of the President. This is because the Indian Penal Code is a central law.

Role of the judiciary

While laws such as the one proposed by the Punjab government are often dictated by political calculations and the urge to appease religious conservatives, they have been made possible also by the judiciary’s regressive interpretations.

Perhaps, the most important case pertaining to Section 295 involves the Dravidian social reformer Periyar EV Ramasamy. In 1953, Periyar was arrested for breaking idols of the Hindu god Ganesha and charged under Section 295. The charge was set aside by the sessions court and the High Court on the ground that breaking an object resembling Ganesha could not be considered an act of desecration. The desecrated object should be holy in its make, like an idol in a temple, for this law to apply, the courts ruled.

But the Supreme Court reversed these orders in 1958. In S Veerabadran Chettiar vs EV Ramaswami Naicker, the court expanded the scope of desecration. It said:

“The words ‘any object held sacred by any class of persons’ occurring in Section 295 Of the Indian Penal Code are of general import and cannot be limited to idols in temples or idols carried on festival occasions. Not merely idols or sacred books, but any other object which is regarded as sacred by any class of persons, whether actually worshiped or not, fall within the description.”  

A year earlier, in Ramji Lal Modi vs State of UP, the Supreme Court, hearing a challenge to Section 295 A, had widened the powers of the state to make laws to preserve public order, and justified blasphemy laws by citing religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. A law enacted by the British in the age of Victorian morality was thus justified under India’s secular Constitution. “A law may not have been designed to directly maintain public order and yet it may have been enacted in the interests of public order,” read the judgement passed by a five-judge Constitution bench. The verdict can now only be revisited by a seven-judge bench.

Curbing freedom of expression

Though the Punjab government has listed four religious texts in the proposed law, the fact is that it has resorted to arbitrary lawmaking, where the idea is to merely make a political statement. This sets a bad precedent for other states to follow.

In a religion such as Hinduism, sacred texts number in the thousands with each sect having its own unique texts. If in the future any government decides to expand such laws to all religious objects, it would end religious dissent and atheistic propaganda for all practical purposes. Someone could claim that, say, cow dung is sacred to him, and seek prosecution of anyone who shows disrespect to it.

In the past, texts considered religious have been burnt or torn for various reasons, including to protest institutionalised discrimination such as the caste system. Laws like Section 295AA render such protests a serious crime that could land members of marginalised communities in prison for life. Such blasphemy laws limit the freedom of expression by making the secular state cede ground to religious fundamentalism. At the same time, the wide scope of such laws make them a tool of state repression.