Punjab’s proposed law on holy books:
- The Punjab Cabinet recently approved amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to make sacrilege of all religious texts punishable with life imprisonment.
- The current proposal is a slightly expanded form of amendments passed by the Punjab Assembly in 2016, specifically aimed at curbing acts of sacrilege targeting the Guru Granth Sahib.
- The Bill was introduced by the then government following allegations of desecration of the holy book.
- The Centre had then returned the Bills, saying that protecting the holy book of only one religion would make it discriminatory and would violate the principle of secularism.
Proposed new law:
- The proposal now cleared by the Punjab Cabinet aims to cover not only Guru Granth Sahib, but also the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagvad Gita.
- The government approved the insertion of Section 295AA to the IPC, which said, “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Geeta, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people shall be punished with imprisonment for life.”
- It is Section 295-A in the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”.
New law is needless:
- Section 295-A already criminalises “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”.
- While upholding its constitutional validity in 1957, the Supreme Court had clarified that the section “punishes the aggravated form of insult to religion when it is perpetrated with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings”.
- So there was no need for a fresh provision to protect religious books from damage, insult and sacrilege, when Section 295-A already covers it.
Will result in undesirable consequences:
- The decision is retrograde and fraught with undesirable consequences.
- Disproportionate punishment:
- Section 295-A is aimed at preserving public order; and miscreants can fan disorder and tension by malicious acts such as damaging or desecrating a holy text. This can be invoked to jail someone for three years.
- Providing for a life term for the same offence (as per Punjab proposal) in relation to religious texts would be grossly disproportionate.
- Ambiguity in definition could lead to misuse:
- ‘Sacrilege’ itself is a vague term, and would render the section too broad.
- Harmful to free speech:
- There is a history of misuse of laws aimed to protect religious sentiments, and those that seek to punish persons who promote enmity between different groups.
- They have a chilling effect on free speech, and give a handle to anyone claiming to be outraged to pursue vexatious prosecutions.
- Political point scoring:
- The proposal seeks to use religious sensitivities to score political points.
- Other states could follow:
- It may also set off a needless flurry of legislation in the rest of India to pander to different groups.
- In fact, a case can be made out to reduce the scope of Section 295-A and Section 153-A of the IPC as they give scope to prosecute people in the name of protecting the feelings of a section of society.
- There is no case whatsoever to enhance jail terms, as has been proposed by the Punjab government.
GS Paper II: Polity