A blasphemous law

Using state power to enforce the sacred, Punjab’s sacrilege law defiles the sacred, messes with the secular.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: August 25, 2018 12:16:29 am
The blasphemy law also messes with secularism. A liberal state needs two sensibilities.  The blasphemy law also messes with secularism. A liberal state needs two sensibilities. 

The Punjab government’s proposal to amend Article 295 of the Penal Code is deeply regressive and will have deep ramifications beyond Punjab. The proposed amendment gives life imprisonment for whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Bhagwad Gita, the Quran and the Bible. As we have seen in the case of neighbouring Pakistan, the progressive strengthening of anti-blasphemy laws during the Seventies was a sign of a toxic combination of greater intolerance and authoritarianism. Does India want to traverse the same road?

Holy books like the Adi Granth are sacred. They are sacred not just for their content. They express the highest truths about Ultimate Reality. The “Sat” in “Ek Omkar Sat Nam” brilliantly combines both Truth and Existence. But in the Sikh tradition, the Book is also treated iconically, with elaborate rituals around its sacred treatment, often to the point where it is not easily disseminated. But using state power to enforce the sacred, both defiles the sacred and messes with the
secular.

The article defiles the sacredness of the Book, the eternity of the Word because the status of the Book now becomes an artefact of state power. It is if the song of Krishna, or the word of Mohammad, or the teaching of the Gurus, now need the imprimatur of state violence to secure their sacredness.

Rather than being luminous, potent and transcendent texts, their status is now reduced to a section of the Indian Penal Code. It also gives defilers of these texts more power: It is in effect saying these books can, in fact, be defiled by some rearrangement or even a burning of a copy. So much for the indestructible Word. The greatest heresy is to think that the word of God needs protection from the mortal state. The sacrilege to the book is not its burning, it is this law.

But this law also messes with secularism. A liberal state needs two sensibilities. The first is that many good things are good and derive their authentic meaning precisely from the fact that there is no coercion behind them. The second is that my beliefs and faith, even if entirely sound, do not by themselves provide sufficient ground for the state using its coercive power to enforce them. The argument that the state needs to use coercive power in deference to religious sentiments (however sincere those sentiments might be), is a piece of illiberal and dangerous nonsense. I may respect something, but it does not give sufficient warrant for the state to enforce this belief or sentiment on others. Religious sentiments need not be illiberal; but they become illiberal when they become the basis for the state enforcing the idea that everyone has to defer to those sentiments. In India, we are constantly expanding the circle of deference to religious sentiment. Contrary to what the Punjab government says, making religious sentiments the basis for law, is a recipe for competitive political mobilisation and conflict, not of peace. This law is also deeply authoritarian. The idea of life imprisonment for acts of injury to the book is neither about deterrence, nor piety. It is simply about the state making a show of its power because it can.

The law also messes with history in bizarre ways. In order to show that the law was not directed at a particular religion, the act includes texts like the Bhagwad Gita in its ambit. The law is still sectarian in that it protects four texts, and the state has decided which texts get protection. But whatever the glories and importance of the Bhagwad Gita, the idea that the state now creates a new liturgy of respect around that text in the same way as the Adi Granth or the Koran, is the state taking over the right to define the significance of these texts in its own way. It is in effect converting the text to what it has never been.

Defenders of the amendments say that the text will not lead to the closing of spaces for criticism, since the act of injury to the text is narrowly defined. But this is plain nonsense. One of the tragedies of modern Sikhism is simply that the religion of extraordinary ecumenism and wondrous detachment has become often seriously internally intolerant. Part of this is political: The SGPC wanting to maintain as much of its monopoly over the religious organisation as possible. But if you talk to serious Sikh scholars you will quickly find out just how difficult it is to do serious critical scholarship in this area: Scholars have been traumatised by their communities. I have personally known scholars who will not write critically on intra-Sikh politics for fear of reprisals.

Often the issue is simply that the scholarship dealing with the character of the text is considered “injurious” to the text, a defilement. In another context, even our courts have held rearranging Basava Vachanas in a different order (to give a more “feminist” reading) was offensive to the Lingayats. Given this context, any law that empowers the state to give upto life imprisonment for injury to the book is about nothing but creating a pall of fear. Its effect will not be the number of prosecutions; its effect will be more palpably felt in people not even daring to push the boundaries of protest.

When the original IPC was discussed in the 1920s, our leaders were far more conscious of its possible infringement on liberty. Now the political class legitimises any infringement on liberty with the imprimatur of majoritarian sentiment behind it. It is true that in Punjab there were acts of desecration of several religious texts. But there are enough existing laws to deal with those who would want to maliciously generate enmity between communities. Second, the motives of these desecrators are mixed. But if they have a political purpose, it is to make sure that they can use religious sentiments to destroy India’s liberal democracy. By caving into those fears, by treating Indian citizens as infantile creatures of passion who cannot be educated for liberty, we are unwittingly aiding their political agenda.

It should also worry a democracy that no political party has opposed or called out the authoritarian character of this bill. Congress and AAP are now both legitimising “religious sentiment” as itself a valid argument (think Ayodhya). For, caving in to some nebulous argument about religious sentiments does not just make us destroy both religion and the state, it also produces political cowardice of the highest order.

The writer is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University. Views are personal

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