Skip to main content

Congress has fished in communal waters: India's ex-civil servants comment on Punjab's blasphemy Bill

Counterview Desk
Thirty four retired civil servants have written an open letter to Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, taking strong exception to the state Congress government's plan to amend the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to make acts of sacrilege against religious books a major offence, punishable with life imprisonment.
Seeking to withdraw the amendment bill, the letter, written under the banner Constitutional Conduct, says that the proposed amendment would “vitiate the secular environment”, pointing out that the country has “already paid a heavy price” for its past sins of  “pandering to extremist sentiments of various religions for short-term political ends.”
Conceding that the Congress has had “a chequered history of occasionally fishing in communal waters, making it vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy”, the letter tells Rahul Gandhi that, at a time when there is a need to uphold secular values more than ever before, “it is incumbent on you as the leader of that party to stand by those values and shun the temptation to score short term political points”.

Text of the letter

It is with much anguish that we – a group of former civil servants anxious about the alarming decline recently, in secular, democratic and liberal values of the Constitution – write to you, confident that you will not allow political expediency to trump secular principles.
We write to express our alarm at recent reports of your government’s plans to amend the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to make acts of sacrilege against religious books a major offence, punishable with life imprisonment. Our objections, echoing similar disagreements widely expressed in the press, are on several grounds. We hope your cabinet will reconsider this decision, that we consider is not wise or thought through, and will withdraw the amendment bill.
  1. Our main arguments are: Blasphemy provisions, such as the one planned, go against the very grain of the secular character of our Constitution. Rather than reduce the role of religion from the matters of the state, expected of a secular polity, this move will further consolidate the hold of sectarianism, and strengthen the hands of religious extremists on all sides. 
  2. Further, blasphemy laws are a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right. Criminalising sacrilege, and making it a major offence, will create a chilling effect on free speech, giving a handle to anyone claiming to be hurt, to pursue ill-founded prosecutions. This is exactly what is happening. Moreover, it will deter any one from even serious research and re-interpretation of religious texts, which will only encourage religious fundamentalism.
  3. Experience of the implementation of blasphemy laws the world over, point to their being particularly prone to misuse against minorities and weaker sections, to harass them, exact revenge and also to settle personal and professional quarrels, all matters entirely unrelated to blasphemy. (Pew Research Centre, 2016, US Commission on International Religious Freedoms, 2017). Making sacrilege a major offence, wherever it has been affected, has “fostered an environment of intolerance and impunity, and led to violations of a broad range of human rights”. (Freedom House, 2010). 
  4. Provisions already exist to deal with insults to religion. Any further amendments to the existing provisions are not merely unnecessary, but are a retrograde step. Laws that seek to restrict freedoms (speech, belief..) have an insidious quality, in that they proliferate, also making space for more severe versions of the original, further restricting freedoms, and tend to gradually spin out of control. 
  5. The proposed amendment is bad in law. It is poorly worded, offences are undefined and open-ended, speaking of ‘sacrilege, and ‘hurt’ caused to ‘people’. It is also arbitrary - religious texts of only four major faiths are included, leaving others out (as far as Hinduism is considered it cites only one text, when there are a hundred other texts held sacred by different sections of Hinduism). 
  6. By prescribing life imprisonment, the proposed amendment makes sacrilege a major offence. This is excessive and disproportionate. Supreme Court has, in its ruling on Sec. 295-A IPC (in Ramjilal Modi vs State of UP, AIR 1957 SC 620) already held that the said provision, that attracts a maximum penalty of 4 years, punishes only the “aggravated form of insult to religion”. 
  7. We have seen that whenever a legislation has not been sufficiently thought through as to its ramifications, is imprecise in its definition of what constitutes an offence, e.g. ‘sacrilege’ and is capable of multiple interpretations, it lends itself to the gross abuse of power by vested political interests, particularly those that represent sectarian groups, and adds to the potential of increased police repression. 
You will appreciate that we have already paid a heavy price for our past sins of pandering to extremist sentiments of various religions for short term political ends, whether it be the Shah Banu case, the Taslima Nasreen case, opening of the gates of Babri Masjid for pooja, banning of various books, paintings etc. This has brought us to a situation today where the very idea of an inclusive, pluralistic, and liberal India and Indian-ness is seriously threatened.
Our country has recently seen the development of a communally charged environment due to the empowerment of sectarian and illiberal ideas and ideologies, resulting in the targeting of minorities and a general increase in social disharmony. The need of the hour is for all responsible stakeholders to act to reduce the space provided to religious fundamentalists of all kind - not open up space further to them.
Additionally, the proposed amendment has the potential to set off competitive mobilisation and copycat blasphemy and sacrilege legislations in other states too. It will only serve to underline divisions and encourage each community to look both over its shoulders as also over the shoulders of others to check what they are doing. It is not difficult to visualise a scenario where such a law can be brutally misused.
The Congress Party has had a chequered history of occasionally fishing in communal waters for short-term political ends making it vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. In a situation where the need to uphold our secular values has become more critical than ever before, we believe it is incumbent on you as an influential leader of that party to stand by those values and shun the temptation to score short term political points. 
We do hope your government will withdraw the Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) bill, 2018 and Code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab Amendment) bill 2018.
---
Click HERE for the list of signatories

Comments

TRENDING

Communal rhetoric? Hindutva preached by RSS-BJP is 'monolithic', not Hinduism

By Prem Verma*  I am a devout Hindu but not a believer of RSS Hindutva form of Hinduism which brings about hatred of other religions. My Hindu religion has not taught me to look down on other religions and neither has it instilled in me to go about converting others to my religion because my religion is superior.

Gross 'injustice' to children: Rs 5000 cr cut in education budget; 15 lakh schools shut down

Counterview Desk  More than 100 dignitaries, including educationists, academia, social activists, teachers’ union, civil society organisations (CSOs), various networks and people working on child rights, in a letter to Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman have sought reversal of reduction in allocation for education in the Union Budget 2021-22, even as demanding substantial increase in it.

India sees 62 journo deaths, 4th highest, amidst pandemic: Swiss media rights body

By Our Representative The Switzerland-based media rights body Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has noted that India is the fourth most affected country as far as mediapersons’ death on account of Covid-19 is concerned. According to Blaise Lempen, secretary-general of PEC, the global tally of casualties among media persons in the Covid-19 pandemic has reached 1,036 journalists in 73 countries till date.

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

RSS love for 'killer' Myanmar junta behind Indian military presence at Tatmadaw Day?

By Shamsul Islam*  If a shameful act means an action which is criminal and nauseating, it would be an understatement to describe the attitude of the present RSS-BJP rulers of India towards the demolition of democracy and large-scale killing of the people of Myanmar by the military ( tatmadaw ) junta which took power through a coup on February 1, 2021 after renegading the election results in which the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy, was a clear winner.

Chhattisgarh’s Apra riverfront imitates Sabarmati: 'Devaluing' water, environment

Sabarmati riverfront By Mansee Bal Bhargava*  This year’s #WorldWaterDay (March 22) focus was on ‘Valuing Water’. My school friend, Pragati Tiwari from Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, called that day knowing my interest in water matters. We were remembering our childhood days as how we used to play on the banks and the bed of the Arpa Nadi (River) during the summer holidays and as how the river would swell like Anaconda to flow happily during the monsoon.

Bihar massacre on Holi day: Brahminical, casteist mindset behind 'uneasy' silence

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*  Several people were killed in Bihar amidst Holi festivities, but not much response has come in from the media. The silence of the government and the society as a whole is also appalling. We seek to romanticise these festivals, yet we forget that every year they take so many lives. This despite the fact that Holi appears to be the best time for 'avenging things'.

India's draft migrants policy: Whither concern on job restrictions imposed by states?

By Anil Kumar*  India’s Niti Aayog has prepared a Draft Migration Policy. The draft policy acknowledges migration as an integral part of development, and it calls for positive government interventions that facilitate internal migration. With a rights-based solution to migration, the draft states that the policy should “enhance the agency and capability of the community and thereby remove aspects that come in the way of an individual’s own natural ability to thrive”.

Recalling Jallianwala martyrs' communal amity as BJP 'warns' of Sitalkuchi everywhere

By Shamsul Islam*  The RSS-BJP rulers declare India to be a battle-ground between Hinduism and Islam. Muslims have been declared as ‘internal threat’ by RSS ideologue MS Golwalkar (“Bunch of Thought”, Chapter xvi). Behaviour of many of their leading cadres, including those who hold high constitutional posts, is such that they seem to be conspiring over-time to ignite a civil war between the two communities. They are under the impression that this would help divert attention from failures of the Hindutva rulers on developmental front.