On March 22, the Punjab Assembly passed a Bill adding Section 295 AA to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) seeking life imprisonment for sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib. In a state with a Sikh majority, this is problematic on two accounts: the intent to curb desecration through increased punishment is a step towards orthodoxy and prioritising sacrilege to Sikhism as graver than to other religions reveals the bias of the political parties. The amendment — pending a nod by the Governor — is a populist trick by the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) to appease one religious community in the coming election year.
A press note from Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal says, “The amendment is primarily aimed at making a stringent provision in law to ensure exemplary punishment to all those who flare up communal tension.” At present, Section 295 of the IPC defines injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class with a punishment for ‘a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both’. Queries to the SAD spokesperson Harcharan Bains did not elicit any response.
This move by the ruling SAD is in the context of the 13 incidents of sacrilege of the Granth Sahib that erupted in the rural landscape of Punjab in October 2015. The timing of the incidents, one after another, within a space of 10 days, is critical: they took place just when, on humanitarian grounds, the farmers and farm workers called off their rail roko agitation even as talks between the agitators and the government remained inconclusive. The farmers and workers were demanding just compensation for the failed cotton crop struck by the whitefly. The government was responsible for the crop failure because it had failed to check the bad seeds and fake pesticides the farmers had been using. The incidents of sacrilege led to more than a week of non-violent protests — by Sikhs, Hindus and even Muslims. The SAD’s attempt to contain them led to police firing in village Behbal Kalan, resulting in two deaths. The First Information Report named no one responsible for the firing. Initially, Punjab Police nabbed seven people responsible for the sacrilege. In November, following a public outcry, the government handed over some of the other cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Since then there has been a deafening silence on identifying or pursuing the miscreants. Just when the recent amendment was proposed, there was another incident of desecration at village Ramdiwali Musalmana in Majitha, near Amritsar. Three youths, who were supposedly under the influence of drugs, were arrested and then again there has been silence.
The SAD government has shown to be grossly incapable of acting on, arresting and pursuing the cases of sacrilege; yet, since they are in power, they are trying to stay in people’s imagination as the sole guardian of Sikhism. If the Governor does not pass the Bill or returns it seeking changes, the party can go crying to the people and seek votes on the pretext that the religion is under threat. This is exactly what they have done with the issue of water sharing between north Indian states and the Sutlej Yamuna Link canal: they passed a Bill in contempt of the Supreme Court and received a dressing down, halting work on the dismantling of the canal.
The SAD has exploited religious and water issues over the last four decades to ensure votes. By doing so they have repeatedly sought to inflame passions and bring the state to the brink of separatism by ignoring the lessons of the decade when Punjab bled over these issues. Punjab’s namesake in Pakistan is a sad example of how religious orthodoxy has undermined democratic processes in that society. Such fundamentalism is the bane of all modern secular societies. By continuing to keep the issues fused, the SAD and even the Opposition parties are playing with the sentiments of the people of the state.
In the House, the Congress did object to the SAD privileging the Sikh faith above others by asking for the law to cover only for the Granth Sahib and symbols of Sikhism. Around 40 per cent of Punjab’s population belongs to other religions. A large number of Sikhs associate with Deras, some of which invoke the Granth Sahib in myriad ways. While the opposition was ignored, the danger of such a draconian law is that the state can use it to prosecute people of other faiths. Above all, while sacrilege is about an overt attack on the symbols of any faith, institutionalising a precedence of one faith above others is against the very fabric of a secular nation. Such a move by an elected government must be condemned.
Amandeep Sandhu is a writer working on a non-fiction book on Punjab