OPINION

Is Punjab’s proposed blasphemy law retrograde?

The Punjab Cabinet has decided to introduce in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) a new Section (295AA) which states, “Whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.” One wonders why this extraordinary penalty is necessary when, throughout India, Section 295A of the IPC already provides for imprisonment up to three years for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”. Now, damage to holy books can attract a mandatory life sentence in Punjab, while other insults can attract up to three years. To put it bluntly, insulting a god or Prophet would land you in jail, but burning or defacing a holy book would land you in prison for life.

History of criminal blasphemy

The Punjab government has probably forgotten the misuse of similar blasphemy provisions in Pakistan, where similar amendments to Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code have ended in several tragedies. To criminalise blasphemy and sacrilege is to step on a slippery slope of justifying mob violence and private vengeance against the accused.

The history of criminal blasphemy creeping into Indian law needs to be retold. Mahashay Rajpal, the publisher of a book, Rangila Rasul ( The Colourful Prophet ), was sought to be prosecuted under Section 153A, as the book allegedly caused disharmony between communities. Rajpal was granted leave to appeal to the Lahore High Court because Section 153A then did not cover criticism of religious figures. As the book did not specifically cause enmity or hatred between religious communities, it did not violate Section 153A was the logic that weighed with the court. Thereupon, the Indian Muslim community demanded a law against insult to religious feelings. The British government enacted Section 295(A) in 1927. As a member of the Viceroy’s Council, Muhammad Ali Jinnah warned, “I thoroughly endorse the principle that while this measure should aim at those undesirable persons who indulge in wanton vilification or attack upon the religion of any particular class or upon the founders and prophets of a religion, we must also secure this very important and fundamental principle that those who are engaged in historical works, those who are engaged in bona fide and honest criticism of a religion, shall be protected.”

Rajpal was later acquitted by the Lahore High Court. On April 6, 1929, he was stabbed to death by a 19-year-old carpenter, Ilam Din. The assassin was sentenced to death by the sessions court. His appeal to the Lahore High Court was conducted by M.A. Jinnah, who was persuaded to do so by the poet Iqbal. The appeal failed, and Ilam Din was hanged on October 31, 1929. Another poet who was supposedly sympathetic to Ilam Din was Deen Mohammed Taseer. Ironically, in 2011, his son Salman Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, for speaking in support of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.

A lesson from Pakistan

Blasphemy laws in the subcontinent derive justification from the argument that people will be outraged by attacks on their religion and resort to street violence if the offender is not legally punished. However, history tells us that such laws and prosecutions rarely avert violence. On the other hand, they are more likely to attract violence and provide the perpetrator a justification for inflicting violence against those who are unfortunate enough to be accused of blasphemy. Indian Punjabi politicians would do well to reconsider their decision to follow their counterparts in Pakistani Punjab.