A foul cry: On alleged attempts to 'commit sacrilege' in Punjab

Neither vigilantism nor disproportionate punishment are answers to ‘sacrilege’

December 22, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

In a disturbing sequence of events, two men were beaten to death over alleged attempts to “commit sacrilege” in the sanctum sanctorum of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and on the Sikh flag in a gurudwara at Nijampur village in Kapurthala earlier this week in Punjab. With passions now running high as the State heads to polls early next year, political parties have jumped into the fray seeking tougher laws and alleging conspiracies. Prominent political leaders cried foul over the alleged attempts at committing sacrilege, but few questioned the murders of the alleged perpetrators without even investigating their crimes. The use of vigilantism as retaliation for their alleged acts is clearly illegal but it is also deeply problematic in other ways as it has disallowed any possibility of unravelling why these incidents occurred and if they were attempts to foment communal tensions. In the Nijampur incident, the police have said the unidentified man who was lynched by sewadars at the gurudwara was most likely a thief, which suggests that the police must book those who took the law into their own hands. Upholding law and order is paramount in defusing tensions related to inflamed religious passions and, unfortunately, the proximity of elections seems to deter this possibility.

The rabble-rousing State Congress chief, Navjot Singh Sidhu , for example, upped the ante by seeking a “public hanging” for those convicted of crimes of committing sacrilege. Earlier in 2018, the State cabinet had sought to pass amendments to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) seeking life imprisonment for those convicted of committing sacrilege against the holy books of major religions, a problematic proposal that sought punishment far disproportionate to the crimes. The proposal itself was redundant as the Supreme Court clarified that Section 295A of the IPC “punishes the aggravated form of insult to religion when it is perpetrated with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings”. Besides, if invoked, it could be used to jail miscreants for up to three years. It is a Section misused to prosecute people in the name of protecting the sentiments of sections of society, thereby dampening freedom of expression. Seeking extraordinary punishment for crimes that are vaguely defined such as “sacrilege” would be an even more retrograde step as the application of stringent “blasphemy laws” elsewhere has shown. The State must now allow the police to conduct thoroughgoing inquiries. It must also bring to justice those engaged in vigilantism. Meanwhile, political parties committed to peace in the State must seek to defuse any public anger over the alleged acts of “sacrilege” and not let it descend into communal tensions.

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