Blasphemy Laws are Anti-Democratic

Open a new tab, go to Google and search for ‘Differences between India and Pakistan’. You will get articles with long lists of differences between the two countries and one entry common across all those lists would be ‘religious freedom’ and ‘blasphemy laws’. When both countries departed their ways in 1947, one chose to become a country built on religious law (Sharia) and the other chose to become a secular republic. Today, Pakistan is more or less unstable with frequent coups and the collapse of freedom at the hands of the military. India, except during the dark days of emergency from 1975 to 1977, was truly democratic in every sense and always cherished the values of liberalism, freedom, individual rights and equality. It was this institutional mechanism that ensured economic progress in the country whereas her neighbor was always dragged down by the inherent problems of an unstable polity. Today, we are trying to reverse these blessings by imposing a sacrilege law to punish those who engage in insulting religious sentiments and values. Are we becoming barbaric with every passing day? Are we trying to make India, a Pakistan?

The history of Pakistan and several other such countries with active and powerful blasphemy laws narrates us volumes about how these laws are counterproductive in nature. Blasphemy laws, which are meant to avoid inter-religious tensions, are in fact often counterproductive, producing a social impact diverging from the most desirable, optimal level of social harmony and well-being.The controversy over the proposed law came after the Punjab government announced its intention to amend the Indian Penal Code (IPC) by inserting a new section 295AA, which is stated as follows:

“Whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”

This is strange due to the fact that Section 295A already deals with such malicious acts against religions and faith, where a person can have up to a maximum of three years in jail. The new law becomes all the more absurd when it comes to the magnitude of the punitive measures that it imposes over the alleged individuals for committing such crimes. While a deliberate action to outrage religious feelings can give you a jail term of three years, the new law under proposed Section 295AA will give you a life imprisonment. This in a way implies the strange legal discourse where it is less punishable to defame a philosopher than defaming his or her teachings in the form of a book. You may kill the author and walk free but you may end up in trouble if you burn his book: yet another legal paradox.Blasphemy laws, though popular amongst the jurisprudence since the early days of human civilization, is not something that is widely recognized by a majority of countries today.

In fact, only 26% of the countries in the world do have blasphemy laws in one or the other form. Even amongst those countries, a handful of them has imprisonment and death sentences as punitive implications; a majority of them are either fines or in the form of restrictions. A majority of countries which have severe forms of punishments are non-democratic countries, like Saudi Arabia or Russia. The essence of these stats is that, even amongst the countries with a blasphemy law, there are very few which actually imposes severe punishments for the violation of such laws. However, the fresh set of amendments to the India Penal Code by inserting the Section 295AA could be seen as an attempt towards the reversal of this trend.

The law to prevent activities and intended threats towards shattering the religious harmony is necessary for any society. However, the new amendment to the existing structure of the law becomes problematic simply due to its relevance when there are already adequate laws to handle such tensions. Similarly, the punitive measure of the law, which is nearly draconian, resembles the laws that prevail in religiously conservative countries like Pakistan where religious minorities are often prosecuted under pseudo-allegations. There have been several cases in the past where the members of minority communities were trialed for ‘allegedly’ burning the religious texts, which were later found to be fabricated and planted by interest groups.

The argument is essentially not to encourage activities that encourage social tensions in the society, nor does the argument reject the need for laws to protect the sanctity of faith and religion. It is not against the law but it is against its relevance within the legal tradition that we follow and the disproportionate magnitude of the punishment attached to it. After all, laws are meant to deter deviance and correct people and not to create further tensions.

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