The Punjab government’s proposal to amend the law on sacrilege, by expanding and toughening it, is ill-judged. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has claimed that the changes are meant to “preserve communal harmony in the state”. But given that there are already laws in the IPC that only need to be implemented more impartially and efficiently to keep and enforce the communal peace, and given that the proposed amendments are vaguely and ambiguously worded, the chief minister’s argument is not persuasive. In fact, section 295AA that is sought to be added to the penal code — which will make causing of “injury, damage or sacrilege” to the Guru Granth Saheb, Bhagwad Gita, Quran and Bible with the “intention” to “hurt” the “religious feelings” of “the people”, punishable with life imprisonment — seems unnecessary, loosely drafted and excessive. It has rightly sparked fears of its misuse by the ruling dispensation to subdue and silence political opponents, the defenceless and the weak, and to restrict the freedom of expression and protest in general.
The Amarinder Singh government has actually resurrected a bill that was passed by the Punjab assembly under the SAD government in 2016 (returned by the Centre in 2017), ostensibly responding to incidents of desecration that had flared in the state in 2015. That sequence of events is telling — the bill mirrors the syndrome of competitive religiosity that has afflicted Punjab politics for a long time now. Yet the Amarinder Singh regime’s cave-in is disappointing. Within the Congress, Singh is the rare regional leader who stands on his own ground, whose popularity and stature give him a measure of autonomy in a party with an overweening high command. In Punjab, he is also the veteran playing what might be his last innings — when he became chief minister this time, he said he would retire from electoral politics after this term was over. It is unfortunate, then, that a chief minister who has room to manoeuvre, a leader mindful of his legacy, should use his powers to play into a politics of fear and insecurity which also panders to the spectres of Punjab’s troubled past. Today, across the country, “religious sentiment” is being used as a pretext to peddle a politics of majoritarianism and intolerance that puts on edge the minorities and the weak. At such a time, the proposed beefing up of the blasphemy law by a Congress government in Punjab is particularly troubling.
As is often the case in Punjab, the government is using a new law, a spectacular or emotive political initiative to silence questions about older unkept promises and unfulfilled agendas more prosaic. The Amarinder Singh government is visibly struggling to meet its commitments to the people on at least two major counts — unemployment and the drug problem. It should know that a tougher, Pakistan-like blasphemy law will not stanch the disillusion or discontent in a state that is seen to be failing its young.