WHEN POLITICIANS COME from the same stock and are faced with a similar set of circumstances, they are likely to respond with a similar set of solutions, or non-solutions.
Three Punjabis proved it on a sub-continental scale. General Zia-ul-Haq wanted to woo the mullahs, so he came up with blasphemy laws. Closer home, the Badal father-son duo faced the heat in the wake of incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture. On top of that, a botched attempt by the Sikh clergy to let Dera Sacha Sauda’s Gurmeet Ram Rahim off the hook by accepting his half-apology for imitating the tenth Sikh master, Guru Gobind Singh, had angered a wide section of the Sikhs. To mollify agitated crowds of the devout, the Akali Dal government in 2015 hammered out a piece of legislation that mandated life imprisonment for anyone committing such sacrilege.
Now, that the Centre returned the Bill pushed for by Punjab, citing the reason that it pertains only to the scriptures of one religion and was, thus, discriminatory, the Amarinder Singh government has expanded the scope by including the Bhagwad Gita, the holy Quran and the Bible. A case of sacrilege of any of these scriptures will attract a sentence of life imprisonment now.
From Zia-ul-Haq till date, they have all been tweaking the same Section 295 of the IPC on either side of the Radcliffe Line.
The fact is that Amarinder Singh was facing the same agitated crowds as the Badals did. The report of the Justice (Retd) Ranjit Singh Commission into the sacrilege incidents during the Badal regime is to be placed within the next few hours in the Punjab Assembly. The Congress government's record of acting against those widely perceived to be guilty has left much to be desired. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's decision to hand over the probe to the CBI did not go down well with the devout, who saw it as a dilly-dallying tactic to let the Badals off the hook.
Hence, Amarinder Singh's move to push in the blasphemy law.
From Zia-ul-Haq till date, they have all been tweaking the same Section 295 of the IPC on either side of the Radcliffe Line. In the quintessentially sub-continental version of the English language, politicians of Punjab(s) are all same-to-same.
The new player on the turf, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), thought it fit to capitalise on the religious fervour following incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib. It wanted to use any weapon readily available to bring down the Fortress Badals. So it whipped up passions, joined the dharnas, and generally adopted the same tone and tenor that the more radical fringe of Akali polity spews.
The genie never went back into the bottle. It couldn't have. Both the Congress-led by Amarinder Singh and the AAP led by a clueless Delhi-based leadership adopted the idiom borrowed from their opponent. The language of politics became ubiquitously panthic.
Nothing is more tempting and more comfortable than serving blood to a bloodthirsty mob. In Punjab, no political party is flinching.
The citizenry became sadh sangat, the fight was for the respect and honour of Guru Maharaj Ji, and the main issue topping the list of grievances was the be-adbi of Guru Granth Sahib. Punjab's political parties, in their race to power, mirrored each other in their approach as well as tactics.
It is true that the Akali Dal lost the 2017 joust, but it is equally true that the battle resulted in the Congress and the AAP reflecting a strong panthic hue.
Amarinder Singh was already adept at it. Having spent more than a decade in the Akali ranks, he was well-versed with the art of courting the radical fringe. During his 2002-07 reign, he led the Sikh centenaries' celebrations from the front and made high-profile visits to Nankana Sahib.
The Badals, upon their return to power, went into overdrive to reclaim the panthic turf, and spent millions on memorials, including those in Anandpur Sahib (Virasat-e-Khalsa
), Chappar Chiri in Mohali (Fateh Burj
), Kup Rohira in Sangrur (Vadda Ghallughara
or Big Holocaust).
Once the state's politics came to have an overt religious underpinning, the AAP was unable to resist. It dumped its secular appeal defined by Constitutional norms and democratic ideals, and instead plunged headlong into the panthic slush. A faux pas by the AAP leadership—it published a picture of the broom over an image of the Golden Temple on the cover of its manifesto—forced the party to project itself as even more panthic
than the Akalis. Some erstwhile radical Sikh leaders also joined AAP ranks.
This is a legacy that even the breakaway group of Sukhpal Singh Khaira and other MLAs have not been able to cast off. In fact, this breakaway group is now trying to beat everyone else at the game, and is at the forefront to demand action in cases of sacrilege.
It is in this paradigm of an entire polity turning panthic that the Amarinder government has come up with this "reformed” piece of legislation that aims to send anyone committing sacrilege to jail for life.
From here onwards, it is a slippery road, and as everyone and his uncle knows, the radical fringe is a forever demanding beast. There is no room for a rollback. As of now, sacrilege may mean wreaking damage upon the Guru Granth Sahib, or tearing a page off it. If tomorrow, someone is found guilty of spoiling a shorter volume of gurbani, often called a "gutka”, will the same law apply?
While the printing, publishing and distribution of the copies of the Guru Granth Sahib is a highly controlled activity, the "gutkas” are found in almost every Sikh's home in Punjab and in the homes of millions of Hindus, too. Many of the incidents of sacrilege in the past involved such "gutkas”. It is almost certain that there will be demand for bringing such incidents within the scope of the law.
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In these times of incessant consumption of multimedia, sooner or later someone in some serial or movie or a YouTube video could be seen as having committed a sacrilege of the scriptures of one religion or the other, since desecration is not a legal term, and is open to multiple interpretations. A character turning his back towards a scripture can be a serious count of sacrilege in the eyes of many devout. There is no end to the religious zealots who will demand the same harsh punishment to such an actor, director, producer, or television channel.
It is open season in Punjab for sacrilege politics. This politics has edged out the persistent headlines about farmers' suicides in the state. The mind space and newspaper columns have little room left for the state of schools, dispensaries and civil hospitals of Punjab.
Newspaper photographers have stopped showing cows and dogs roaming about in government hospitals since these no longer make the news.
Punjab is finding new ways of ensuring that children clear their annual exams: it is slashing school syllabi by almost half. The state now competes at the global level for the number of people who die in road accidents in one month. The fastest growing business in Punjab is now outlets that prepare the young to face the IELTS examination. The most secular dream of a Punjabi youth is to escape to Canada—by means fair or foul.
But amid all of this, there is nothing more glamorous than to take a leaf out of Zia-ul-Haq's book and foist a sacrilege law. Nothing is more tempting and more comfortable than serving blood to a bloodthirsty mob. In Punjab, no political party is flinching. You can sing Fahmida Riaz—Tum Bilkul Hum Jaise Nikle—but to no avail. "The panth is in danger” is a war cry for all times.
(*SP Singh is a senior journalist. This article is being published courtesy newslaundry.com)
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