Retrograde move

The Punjab Cabinet’s decision to amend the law to make acts of sacrilege against the holy books of major religions punishable with life imprisonment is retrograde and fraught with undesirable consequences. It may also set off a needless flurry of legislation in the rest of India to pander to different groups. 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 Centre had then returned the Bills, saying that protecting the holy book of only one religion would make it discriminatory and anti-secular. The proposal now cleared by the Cabinet aims to also cover the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagvad Gita. In specifics, the law will introduce a new section (Section 295-AA) in the Indian Penal Code after India’s own ‘blasphemy law’, Section 295-A, which criminalises “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”. As prior permission of the Central or State government is needed to prosecute someone under such sections, a consequential amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure will be required. The earlier Bill was introduced by the Shiromani Akali Dal government following allegations of desecration of the holy book. Opposition to the Bill was then limited to the question whether holy books of other religions did not warrant the same protection. None seemed concerned about using religious sensitivities to score political points.

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