ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Punjab Sacrilege Bill Is a Vigilante Legislation

Progressive subordination of the domain of the sacred is the cornerstone of secularism.

The Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018, mooted by the Congress-led Government of Punjab and subsequently passed by the Punjab assembly, seeks to amend Article 295-A to make the sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib, Koran, Bible and Bhagavad Gita a punishable offence attracting life imprisonment. The immediate political context of the bill is the contestation between the Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Interestingly, on an earlier occasion, the SAD-led state government had passed a bill making sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib punishable. However, it was sent back in 2017 by the union government on the grounds that the proposed amendments would violate the principle of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The current Punjab government seeks to justify its bill because it has included the sacred books of other religions as well. This is an instance of how its understanding as “sarva dharma sam bhaav” (equal treatment to all religions) turns the principle of secularism on its head. Commitment to the principle of secularism entails a progressive subordination of the sacred and continuous transition from the holy to the profane. 

Even though the bill does not invoke the term blasphemy, its inner logic aligns it with anti-blasphemy laws. However, some of the mainstream arguments against the potential threat of blasphemy laws to a liberal democracy seem to be operating within a minimalist understanding of secularism. One line of criticism faults the bill for defiling the sacred or the transcendental character of holy texts by using this-worldly state power to protect it. This attempt to expose the apparent irony underlying the bill is inadequate, for it misses the very political purpose of blasphemy laws. To deem certain ideas/thoughts/norms/values to be out of bounds for criticism or contestation is to argue that certain forms of power are beyond criticism or contestation. The creation, delimitation and expansion of the domain of the sacred is always a political (and not merely theological) exercise to create barriers of defiance for entrenched power. There is no irony involved in using this-worldly state power to protect the sacred, as the authority of the sacred is invariably invoked to strengthen this-worldly power structures. 

A second line of criticism faults the bill for importing the “Judaeo-Christian” concept of blasphemy into Hinduism by including the Bhagavad Gita among the holy books. This is taken as a violation of traditions of pluralism and tolerance. However, this view ignores the historical fact of persecution, social boycott, outcasting of nastika/non-vedic/pakhandi heterodox streams, and the individuals and groups associated with these. Whatever apparent tolerance there is for the deviance from sacred texts is overshadowed by the fierce/violent opposition to the deviance in practice, particularly the practice of caste-based norms. Thus, this second view fails to see the sources of social sanction that blasphemy laws can receive in Indian society and thereby polity. What is common to these two critiques of the bill in question is the hesitation to subject the domain of the sacred itself to criticism. Such criticism, which is deemed blasphemous, is essential to nurture the principle of secularism. These hesitant critiques thus prove inadequate to explain the political implications of such legislation in the state of affairs marked by the erosion of the commitment to this principle. 

In recent times, there have been increasing demands for banning plays, books, and works of art on the grounds of insult to religious belief or identity of a particular community. In more recent times, attempts to insulate religious texts from fair criticism have become quite vicious. This was evident from the two cases of bomb blasts that were engineered by Hindutva groups outside theatres in Mumbai. These blasts were executed when a popular Marathi play, drawing on the rich folk traditions of irreverence to sacred authority and playful mockery of gods, was being staged. The self-styled custodians of tradition were outraged by this popularisation of heterodoxy. The Punjab legislation can lead to other states similarly pandering to the demands of different communities and groups. Such legislation would hinder the possibility of the immanent critique of religious/community practices, beliefs, and norms, as blasphemy laws strengthen the position of the dominant within the community by accepting their interpretation as authoritative. But, even more serious is the danger of such legislation indicating to the extremist and vigilante groups that their actions have the overt or tacit backing of state power. Therefore, the bill needs to be seen as a vigilante legislation that could potentially legalise vigilantism. We have seen the horrific consequences of such a symbiotic process in the case of the anti-cow slaughter legislation and gau-rakshak violence. Legal protection for the text in the domain of the sacred, even as hate speech and hate crimes against human individuals and collectives go unabated and unpunished, is a definite indicator of the extent of erosion of the secular principle in our polity and society. 

Updated On : 17th Sep, 2018


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