The Punjab assembly has approved an amendment to Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code that imposes a life sentence upon those convicted of desecrating religious texts. Section 295A, earlier, stipulated a prison term of three years for anyone found guilty of outraging, or attempting with malicious intent to outrage, the religious sentiments of the practitioners of any faith. A number of commentators have in recent days objected strenuously and with passionate conviction to legislation that is unquestionably liable to abuse and will almost certainly further undermine the already endangered secular structure of the Indian polity, but their arguments do not as much as recognise the principal intellectual shortcoming of the legislation.
Let it be said that most of the commonplace arguments that have been raised against this extremely foolish and dangerous gesture on the part of the Congress government are not insignificant. First, the concern with desecration of religious texts is not groundless, as the spate of incidents in Faridkot in late 2015 involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib suggests. There is, secondly, the question of political expediency: The country will be going to elections in less than an year, and the Congress is keen to position itself before voters, not for the first time, as a champion of religious minorities.
Thirdly, the Akali Dal government in 2016 did pass legislation that sought life imprisonment for desecrating the Sikh holy book, as well as an enhanced prison term of 10 years for offenders against other religious faiths, but the Central government returned the legislation both on the grounds that the prescribed punishments were “excessive in law” and, more importantly, in violation of the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The violation was construed as emanating not even remotely from the fact that the state had no business in using its coercive powers to enforce religious belief, but rather from the curious fact that in prescribing a higher penalty for desecrators of the Guru Granth Sahib than for those who had insulted the holy books of other faiths, the state government had elevated one religion over another and thereby violated the central tenet of Indian secularism which insists on parity for all religions.
It is for this reason that the amendment to Section 295A stipulates that “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 punished with imprisonment for life”. What was deemed as “excessive” punishment is now sought to be imposed with uniformity upon an offender found guilty of the said offence, regardless of religion. Apparently, barbarism towards all is to be preferred to a barbarism that is
Much else has been said, and with due reason, against the amendment to the IPC. The application of “blasphemy laws” in neighbouring Pakistan demonstrates the extraordinary hazards of such legislation: People often falsely charge others to settle personal scores, and many of those accused have been killed by vigilante mobs even before they could be brought to court. There is also the equally substantive issue that the threshold for what is deemed “religious hurt” continues to be lowered. The three dozen retired civil servants who have addressed an open letter to the Punjab Chief Minister are doubtless right in arguing that “blasphemy laws are a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right.”
While these arguments have merit, a more fundamental problem remains. The use of the phrase, “blasphemy laws”, is common to nearly everything that has been written on the subject. The legislation in question does not use the word “blasphemy”, but all commentators have understood the gist of it as prescribing penalties for blasphemy. Like many of the categories that inform our intellectual discourse in India, “blasphemy” is part of the Judeo-Christian inheritance that was handed down to India in the wake of colonial rule. Moses is told by the Lord to tell the Israelites, “When any man whatever blasphemes his God… all the community shall stone him; alien or native… he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:15-16). Moral theologians such as Thomas Aquinas regarded blasphemy as a sin against faith. The Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I, decreed the death penalty for blasphemy, and in large parts of the Christian world blasphemy remained punishable by death until comparatively recent times.
What is absolutely striking is the fact that the idea of blasphemy has no point of reference or analogue in Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism. The idea is absolutely foreign to at least the adherents of these religions. Indians, whatever their religious faith, understand the reverence in which holy books are to be held, or the respect that is to be paid to religious shrines, but it is questionable whether most of them would be moved by arguments about “blasphemy”.
What does blasphemy mean to a Hindu, and what is “the holy book” that is being blasphemed against? On whose authority does the Punjab government pronounce that the Bhagvad Gita is to the Hindu what the Bible is to the Christian or the Quran to the Muslim? How did the view of a certain, and to a considerable extent Anglicised, element of the Hindu middle class about the Gita come to represent the view of all Hindus? How does one even begin to understand that every faith, and not only Hinduism, began to be shaped in the image of Protestant Christianity commencing from the late 18th century? We have here another instance of how our thinking takes place without any awareness of the fact that the intellectual legacies of the Judeo-Christian tradition are unthinkingly deployed to frame very different experiences.
I am reminded, finally, of an anecdote from the life of Vivekananda. It is reported that on a visit to Kashmir, some of Vivekananda’s followers swore, upon seeing the broken images of the goddess strewn over the countryside, that they would henceforth not permit her images to be defiled. Vivekananda turned to them with a retort, “Do you protect the Goddess, or does the Goddess protect you?” The chief minister and the other self-appointed guardians of religion can usefully take home a lesson from this story.
It is arrogant for them to believe that the great faiths of India require the protections of the Indian state; and this is, of course, apart from any consideration of whether the Indian state has any moral standing to uplift these faiths. On nearly every ground that one can think of, the Punjab and Central governments would be well advised to withdraw the amendment to Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.