In the two centuries of its existence, modern constitutional government has been inextricably bound up with identity. In Europe, the identity is often linguistic. The Age of Revolution that transitioned the continent from feudal monarchies to modern states, was driven by language groups such as Italians, Germans, Hungarians. In India, however, it is religious identify that plays the central role in its democracy, with communal demands constantly driving politics. On August 21, Punjab cleared a bill making desecration of religious texts a crime punishable with life imprisonment.

The decision was primarily influenced by the violent protests set off by the tearing of the pages of the Quran and the Guru Granth Sahib nearly three years ago. The matter is being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation. This is only the latest example of mass politics around religion driving laws against sacrilege and blasphemy in the subcontinent. The trend stretches back nearly a century.

In 1860, the British enacted the Indian Penal Code which penalised desecration of holy places and cemeteries, drawing on sacrilege laws that existed in Britain then. One provision punished the wounding of religious feelings or the disturbing of a religious assembly.

Around that time in colonial India, popular politics was developing along communal lines, eventually resulting in the invention of the mass communal riot in the late 19th century. Azamgarh saw probably India’s first mass riot in 1893, unleashed by mobs organised by cow protection groups. In response, the Raj moved to amend the Indian Penal Code in 1897. Introducing the bill in the British parliament, MD Chalmers argued that while England had a “practically homogenous population”, a law to penalise the promotion of enmity was required in India, “where different races and religions are in continual contact”. “Recent agitations in various parts of India have shown,” he added, “how dangerous to public tranquillity is any agitation that seeks to fan into flames those feelings of racial and religious antagonism which still smoulder beneath the surface.”

The result was Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code which is wide enough in scope to punish words or even signs that promote enmity between groups. Given that acts of desecration or blasphemy in India often cause communal tension, Section 153A is routinely invoked against both offences.

Blasphemy law

In 1927, the colonial rulers were again forced to amend the Indian Penal Code to explicitly introduce blasphemy as an offence. This seminal moment in the Indian politics was driven by happenings in Punjab.

In the 1920s, Punjab was in religious ferment as reformation groups, including the Ahmadiyas, Hindu Sabha, Arya Samaj, Khilafat Movement and Singh Samaj, jostled for power. In 1927, a person named Rajpal anonymously published a pamphlet titled Rangila Rasul, or Colourful Messenger, which made scandalous references to Prophet Muhammad’s life. The pamphlet was a success. Its first 1,000 copies sold out quickly, leading to preparations for a second edition. But protests soon broke out against the pamphlet which descended into communal violence. While the cities of Kohat and Rawalpindi witnessed riots, the capital Lahore remained tense. Rajpal was booked under Section 153A but the Lahore High Court found him not guilty. However, given the worsening communal situation, the judge Dilip Singh himself appealed for a law to outlaw blasphemy. “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,” he said.

As Rajpal’s acquittal contributed to the outbreak of major rioting in Lahore in May 1927, the governor of Punjab announced the Raj would heed the judge’s suggestion to enact a new law. The law took the shape of Section 295A, which was added to the Indian Penal Code later that year and made insulting religious beliefs a criminal offence.

Shared trend

In enacting both 153A and 295A, the British Raj was acting under public pressure, often brought to bear violently. As a result, the trend of passing laws that penalised the hurting of religious sentiments received a fillip after independence. In 1969, on the recommendation of the National Integration Council, an advisory group headed by the prime minister, Section 153A was strengthened and a specific reference to religious desecration was added. Some of the laws enacted over the years against desecration and blasphemy have been challenged in the Supreme Court, only to be upheld as constitutional.

Over in Pakistan, the trend of penalising the hurting of religious sentiments has been even stronger. In 1982, the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq brought a new law that made defiling the Quran a criminal offence. It may be seen as a model for Indian Punjab’s 2018 bill, although the latter notably penalises the desecration of the religious books of all major faiths in the state. So, while India and Pakistan have a shared history when it comes to the politics of hurt religious sentiments, there are also notable differences.

In 1986, Pakistan explicitly made “derogatory remarks” about Prophet Mohammad an offence punishable with death or life imprisonment, adding to a 1980 law that spoke of the “use of derogatory remarks in respect of holy personages”. Both these laws are frequently used to target minorities in Pakistan. Two other laws, introduced in 1984, in fact, explicitly attack the Ahmediyya sect, making it a criminal offence for them to identify as Muslim.