ON A day when the Punjab police released a photo of the youth who was beaten to death for allegedly committing an act of sacrilege at the Golden Temple in a bid to identify him, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa wrote to Union Home Minister Amit Shah asking him to obtain Presidential assent for two Bills passed by the state’s Vidhan Sabha in 2018 mandating the life term in sacrilege cases.
In the letter, Randhawa wrote that “sacrilege of holy books is becoming a major issue in Punjab” and that “existing provisions of Section 295 and 295-A of the Indian Penal Code-1860, which provide for a punishment of up to three years, are inadequate to deal with this situation”.
“So, the Punjab Vidhan Sabha passed ‘The Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018 and The Code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab Amendment) Bill 2018’, which provide for punishment up to life imprisonment for whoever causing injury, damage or sacrilege to Shri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwat Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people,” Randhawa, who also holds the Home portfolio, wrote.
“…Punjab being a border State, it is extremely necessary to maintain communal harmony here. For this, deterrent punishment is must for those trying to disturb communal harmony by indulging in sacrileges. So, I again request that the Presidential assent for the said Bills may kindly be obtained and conveyed to the State government, at the earliest possible,” the letter stated.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Randhawa said that “the state has written to the Centre umpteen times about the pending assent”.
“The Bills are still lying with the Ministry of Home and keep oscillating between the Ministry and the State. They keep raising objections, one after the other. It has taken over three years. The Department of Home has replied to all the questions being raised by them. We have been arguing that Guru Granth Sahib is considered a living Guru of Sikhs. Then why can’t sacrilege be dealt with like a murder?” he asked.
“Under IPC sections 295 and 295A, an accused could be bailed out in 15 days. Those who commit sacrilege are not scared of the law when it is not stringent. These lynchings have taken place only because people think that the culprits would not be given harsh punishment. They took the law into their own hands,” Randhawa said.
On Sunday, a day after the Amritsar killing, an unidentified migrant worker from Bihar was beaten to death in Kapurthala for an alleged sacrilege bid at a gurdwara although the police said there was no proof of sacrilege having been committed.
On Monday, a police spokesperson referred to the youth killed in Amritsar and said: “We have released his picture and are expecting a response from the public. So far, we have not got anything to identify him. He had no phone or identification paper.” The police have also not been able to verify the personal details of the migrant worker killed in Kapurthala.
In the state assembly, the ball was set rolling on stricter penalties in sacrilege cases on March 21, 2016, when the then SAD-BJP government passed The Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2016, and The Code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2016.
The amendments recommended life terms for the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib.
Section 295A of the IPC deals with “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and provides for an imprisonment up to three years. The amendment aimed at inserting section 295AA that mandates life imprisonment for the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib.
The amendments also sought enhancement of punishment under IPC section 295, for injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class, from two years to ten years of imprisonment.
But on March 16, 2017, the day Amarinder Singh’s Congress government was sworn in, the Centre returned the Bills saying all religions needed to be treated equally as per the secular nature of the Constitution and that it could not single out a religion to propose life imprisonment.
In August 2018, the Punjab Assembly withdrew the 2016 Bills, and unanimously passed new Bills proposing life imprisonment for desecration of religious scriptures of four religions. The new Bills retained the earlier amendment of 2016 pertaining to places of worship where punishment under IPC section 295 was enhanced to ten years.
During the discussion on the 2018 Bills, Amarinder Singh read out observations by the Centre that “the Government of India has also taken (the) opinion of Mr Mukul Rohtagi, the then Attorney General of India”. According to Amarinder, Rohtagi had observed that “punishment of ten years is proposed under section 295. The same is excessive. In my view, the President of India may not give assent to it”.
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