(Secular Perspective September 1-15, 2018)
I hold it blasphemy to say that that a man ought not to fight against authority; there is no religion and no great freedom that has not done it, in the beginning– George Eliot
If the above quote is any indication, it is easy to understand that blasphemy is seen by many great thinkers and leaders not as a crime but an expression of dissent, critical thinking and challenging status quo which perpetuated injustices. Anti- blasphemy laws therefore are an attempt to empower the state to arrest any dissent and inch towards an authoritarian and intolerant state. In one such attempt, the Punjab Assembly unanimously passed a Bill which proposes life imprisonment for the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib, Gita, Quran and Bible in Punjab through amendment of IPC section 295. Section 295 originally prescribes imprisonment which may extend to two years. Though the four Books are covered under the ambit of the amendment, a section of the Punjab Assembly has been vehemently demanding special status for the Guru Granth Sahib as it is considered as a living Guru. The demand for the amendment was made after a spate of incidents in Punjab where the Guru Granth Sahib was desecrated and thus ‘sacrilege’ committed.
The move of the Punjab Assembly has come under criticism from different quarters and especially by the liberals for various reasons. The author here would similarly like to point out the implications and concerns that the Bill gives rise to. At the very heart of the issue is the very problematic assumption of the Bill that religion can be reduced merely to Holy books. Though it can be argued that the books itself are embodiment and revelation of what the supernatural or God wills its followers to do and also give an insight into their own lived experiences, reducing religion to mere books reflects the narrowing of the vastness and transcendence of the God to a thing alone. As Mark Twain so aptly puts, if God is so vast then he is above blasphemy and if He is as little as that, He is beneath that. The Bill renders religion very fragile and mundane by propagating the idea that it can be insulted through an insult to a mere book. What perhaps is more central to religion is the idea and message of love, compassion and truth and this idea needs protection and encouragement to live in a civilized society.
While the amendment brings only four Books into its ambit, one wonders whether this too is not arbitrary. Here two points can be mulled over. Firstly do these books in reality represent the religious beliefs of the communities it is assumed follow these religions? For instance, the Bill assumes that Gita is the Holy Scripture of Hinduism. Semitic religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism) believe that the Holy scriptures are repositories of the ultimate truth and in that way are central to these religions. That is not the case with Hinduism. Though it is true to an extent that Gita may be revered by some sections of Hindus, but having said that Gita is not the Book like Bible is to Christianity or Quran is to Islam. Gita doesn’t become one of the integral pillars of the Hindu religion. Hinduism is characterized by a plurality of ideas and beliefs. Therefore one finds many panthas and sects under the Hindu fold worshipping different Gods and books. For instance the Mahabharata is also looked upon as an important book so is Ramayana. Even when it comes to Ramayana, there are different versions followed by different groups. These versions are radically different in its portrayal of what’s good and evil. Then there are the numerous Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads. How can this mind boggling range of beliefs be reduced to one single book and in the process homogenize the Hindu religion?
Secondly, some sections of the society see these books as a source of oppression and inequality. The Holy Books as mentioned above are all encompassing sources of law and social norms of conduct and relations. It is equally true that they establish a hierarchy and privilege one section over the other, in that it’s political. Women for instance are mostly portrayed in an inferior position in the scriptures. These scriptures are cited as a justification for gender roles discriminatory to women and entrench inequality. By such amendments, the state robs the right to protest and right to expression of citizens when such injustices are challenged and in effect silence the marginalized.
In spite of existence of different religions, all religions hold one idea very sacred that of truth. No religious text or religious doctrines claim that there is one single truth. Religions essentially teach love and compassion to embrace multiplicity of truths and its manifestations. Truth and its manifestations might differ from time to time and generation to generation which make sense of the texts and doctrines differently to suit the context and needs arising in the society they live in. By passing such laws, the growth of ideas through critical thinking and dissent is thwarted in the most brutal way. Two examples that immediately come to mind are Galileo and Ambedkar.
Galileo, Italian scholar, philosopher and physicist, in the sixteenth century, held that the Sun is the centre of the universe and earth is one of the planets or the theory of heliocentrism. This theory went against the established belief held sacred by the Church. This led to his inquisition. He was persecuted and lived the rest of his life under house arrest. However, if it wasn’t for Galileo and renaissance, we would still be in dark ages though he was condemned for blasphemy in his life time. Second example is that of Ambedkar. In India, the Manusmriti was believed to be the source of laws governing social relations. The Manusmriti elaborately and firmly upheld the hierarchy of castes and prescribed inhuman treatment and punishments for the Shudras or the untouchables. Ambedkar recognizing that Manusmriti is a tool to legitimize this inhuman and unjust social order burnt the Manusmriti. One can appreciate that if it wasn’t for Ambedkar to challenge the status quo and question the very book which was considered sacred and thus beyond reproach or fault, caste inequality would still be justified.
Though these thinkers were condemned as challenging religion itself at that time, they paved way for scientific progress and a just society. This is how society evolved, by questioning the words which were considered infallible. By passing such draconian laws, the state is discouraging such evolution and also imposing the same interpretation and meaning of symbols and words on future generations, robbing them of the opportunity to rediscover religion and making it more relevant for them. This is especially true when it comes to equality and citizenship rights related to the marginalized like women and unprivileged castes.
Apart from negating religious pluralism, the Bill in effect arms the State with a legal weapon to deprive citizens of the cherished fundamental right of right to life and liberty. Such laws give absolute power to the State to take away life and liberty of an individual and thus this road should be tread with caution. The state- police and judiciary is not without its bias. The dominant political discourse in the country today is stifling any dissenting voices and encouraging intolerance towards slightest difference. This is strengthening state and non state actors to violate the fundamental rights of citizens. Today, political mobilization along religious lines is a worrisome trend. Such laws will only intensify the polarization and mobilization. This is manifesting in mob lynching under the pretext of cow slaughter or possession of beef or child lifting and recently the spate of arrests of civil rights activists who have been questioning the policies of the state. Vigilantism under the slightest pretext is on a rise costing innocent lives particularly from marginalized communities. It’s no secret then that the state is not treating all the religions equal and this poses a challenge to the secular democracy in India. The granting of excessive legitimacy to religion is a heady and fatal mix in a democracy.
It will be instructive to refocus as to why the amendment is necessary. If there are instances of defilement of religious texts or symbols, are there no necessary laws to deal with such incidents? Will increasing the punishment to life imprisonment prove a deterrent? To answer this question, yes IPC section 295 already existed. Any particular crime is not deterred by increasing its punishment but it is deterred if there is certainty of penalty. Ironically, substantial number of communal violence occur in India due to or during religious festivals or over conflict of routes of religious processions or over allegations that flesh of forbidden meat is placed under in places of worships. Many a times, these acts are preceded or followed by hate speeches by political leaders. But is section 295 invoked during these times and the guilty punished? The answer is anyone’s guess.
One danger of this law may be the selectively invoking the law. According to a report of NDTV, there is an almost 500% increase in the hate speeches in the last four years. During the NDA period, a total of 45 political leaders made hateful comments. Of them, 35 politicians, or 78%, are from the BJP. 10 leaders, or 22% of the offenders, are from other political parties, including the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (Jaiswal, Jain, & Singh, 2018). The members of the ruling dispensation have been indulging in hate speeches which are instigating violence and disturbing communal harmony. But hardly anyone is convicted under section 295. Going by this trend there is very little probability that the powerful from the ruling dispensation will be punished or brought in the ambit of the law. This law will be rendered clawless if it can’t be invoked against those accountable to uphold laws and Constitution. This law will be legal ammunition to target the marginalized who have little access to the criminal justice system which itself is replete with flaws and time consuming.
The Bill passed by the Punjab Assembly is deeply problematic in the light of the above arguments. It is a step in the direction of authoritarianism and in opposition to secular democratic values which is the cornerstone of the Indian Constitution. Like most scholars are pointing out, this law prescribes disproportionately severe punishment for an act which can be punished under existing laws. Such draconian laws will bolster the intolerance brewing in the country under the name of religion and legitimizing State’s discrimination. In the process it is doing disservice to religion itself to reducing it to such absurdity which will be questioned by the most ardent followers given its inhumane nature and severe implications on citizenship in vibrant democracy. As said by George Eliot in the quote right in the beginning, blasphemy is not criticizing religion but not to stand up against authority and injustice. That is the essence of religion.
 295. Injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class.—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.