Punjab Blasphemy Bill: Yet Another Blow to Freedom of Expression in India

Politics

Punjab Blasphemy Bill: Yet Another Blow to Freedom of Expression in India

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

T

he number of punishments for religious blasphemy throughout human history are staggering both in their creativity and their variety. Across the world, people have been excommunicated from society, ritually beheaded, and even burned at the stake for offending religious sentiments. Now, the Punjab government, led by Captain Amarinder Singh, wants to get in on the party by proposing a bill that decrees life imprisonment for those found guilty of desecrating four major sacred texts – the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, the Holy Bible, and the Guru Granth Sahib. While life imprisonment might not seem as flashy as its medieval counterparts, the sentiment behind the bill shares the same close-minded legacy of silencing freedom of expression and rational thought.

The short version of the story is that this proposed bill from the Congress-led government is a rejigged version of a 2016 proposal from the earlier Shiromani Akali Dal government, which also prescribed life imprisonment, but only for desecrating the Guru Granth Sahib. That bill was rejected by the Union government for violating the principle of secularism, enshrined in the preamble to our Constitution. But it has found a new life and is back with a new and improved scope that includes Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism. Did CM Singh forget about the existence of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and other minority faiths, or does he think that their texts are fair game?

However, the implications of this bill are no laughing matter.

The Indian Penal Code already contains Section 295A, which prescribes a jail term of up to two years for desecration of religious texts. What the Punjab government’s amendment to the IPC will achieve – pending approval from the Union home ministry – is the intensification of a punishment that already exists. In a religious tinderbox like India, where copies of books like Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus are burned in the street, and makers of films like Padmaavat are threatened with violence by frothing fundamentalists, is this really what we need?

Life imprisonment is a powerful tool of intimidation with which to threaten anybody expressing an unpopular opinion, far more effective than a simple two-year term.

“I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” said the French philosopher Voltaire, capturing the essence of free speech in one elegant phrase. Unfortunately, when viewed in an Indian context, where upsetting religious sentiments can often lead to bloodshed, Voltaire’s words feel like hollow idealism. Look no further than the murder of rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar for proof that criticising religious orthodoxies can cost the ultimate price.

With the Punjab government implementing this law, which some might say resembles our favourite neighbour Pakistan’s blasphemy laws in some aspects, the state seems to be weighing in on the debate, and on the side of dogma rather than freedom of expression. Life imprisonment is a powerful tool of intimidation with which to threaten anybody expressing an unpopular opinion, far more effective than a simple two-year term. This creates an atmosphere where the risk of offending someone outweighs the urge to speak your mind, muting those who speak up against religion.

Whenever organised religion is faced with a threatening idea, it lashes out. From Galileo to Raja Ram Mohan Roy, no free thinker has been able to challenge religious thinking without facing repercussions. But the truth, encouragingly, has found a way. Despite the Vatican forcing Galileo to recant his teachings and Brahmanical opposition to Roy, nobody believes the Sun revolves around the Earth or that women should commit sati today. Now the Punjab government, refusing to learn from history, is condemned to repeat it by coming down hard on freedom of expression.

Before this bill can be made into law, it requires approval from the Union home ministry, as the IPC is a central law. Perhaps the NDA government at the Centre will see the bill for the aggressive posturing it is, and claim that the existing sentence of two years imprisonment is just. Then I remember that RSS leaders have expressed victim-blaming opinions like, “lynchings will cease when people stop eating beef,” and any optimism I feel withers away on the spot.

Luckily for me, I don’t live in Punjab, where this amendment will come into effect. If I did, perhaps I wouldn’t be able to end this article with a reminder to people that regardless of religions, freedom of expression is a universal human right. That is all.

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