Delhi: A cluster of incidents of alleged sacrilege in Punjab, two of them culminating in the lynching deaths of the suspects, have both the Congress and BJP demanding severe punishments for those found guilty of desecrating the Guru Granth Sahib, considered a living Guru by the Sikhs.
A day after Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa wrote to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, asking him to obtain presidential assent for two state bills mandating life term for sacrilege cases, the BJP strove to establish that it was the first to pass the bills. BJP leaders also accused the Congress of “diverting attention” by bringing up the bills, since the Guru Granth Sahib is regarded as a “living guru”, and therefore, those who harm it can be charged and punished for attempt to murder.
Ashwini Sharma, president of the Punjab BJP, told ThePrint that the Congress is only following in the footsteps of the former Akali-BJP government that was in power in the state between 2007 and 2017.
“It was not the Congress, but the BJP-Akali government which passed the bill in 2016 to protect the sentiments of the Sikh community. It proposes changes in the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Penal Code so that there is a provision for a life sentence for anyone who desecrates the Guru Granth Sahib. We strongly demand that strict action should be taken against anyone found guilty of insulting the Guru Granth Sahib,” Sharma said.
According to BJP spokesperson R.P. Singh, however, the issue of the pending bills is a diversion since the Guru Granth Sahib is regarded as a “living guru”, and therefore anyone who tries to harm the holy book can be punished under Section 307 (attempt to murder) of the IPC.
“It is not the BJP but the Supreme Court that has said that the Guru Granth Sahib is a living guru (in a judgment in the year 2000). If someone attacks a living guru, there is a provision for charging the person for attempt to murder under Section 307 of the penal code. Demanding a change in the penal code is a tactic to divert attention. Why are they (Congress government) not treating such cases under Section 307?” Singh asked.
Bills open ‘Pandora’s Box’: Home ministry official
In 2016, the Akali-BJP government had passed two bills — the Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2016, and the Code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2016 — recommending life imprisonment for the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. These bills were sent to the Union Home Ministry, which was expected to forward them for presidential assent. However, in 2017, soon after the Congress government under Captain Amarinder Singh took the reins in Punjab, the Centre returned the bills saying that all religions needed to be treated equally under the Constitution, and that it could not make an exception in the case of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Subsequently, in 2018, the Punjab assembly withdrew the 2016 bills. In their place, it passed two new bills that proposed the provision of a prison term of up to life for desecrating the holy books of all major religions in India. These bills, however, are still with the home ministry.
According to the proponents of these bills, the current provisions of the IPC (sections 295 and 295A) for cases pertaining to “destruction, damage, or defilement of a place of worship or an object held sacred” are not enough of a deterrent since the maximum prison term is only two years.
Speaking to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity, a home ministry official explained that giving assent to the two pending Punjab bills is a tricky matter. “The Centre gives assent to state bills keeping in view their ramifications and legal sanctity. It consults other states too when a bill has provisions that can have a wider impact across the country,” the official said.
“There are so many religions in India, each with their own practices. How can we allow life imprisonment for only one or two religions? Every religion and state might demand such a law. How will you define what is or is not an insult? It is actually a Pandora’s Box.”
Surjit Kumar Jyani, who was health minister in the Akali-BJP government, told ThePrint that the matter was one of faith and not politics. “It is a question of aastha (faith) of crores of Sikhs. We are not involving politics since it is an issue of religion. We demand that the Centre should expedite its assent to the bill,” he said.
Jyani added that there should be “strict punishment” for denigrating or insulting the Guru Granth Sahib and that “there should be provision for a fast-track court for such cases so that do not linger for years and years”.
Sacrilege, a long-standing political issue in Punjab
There has been a huge uproar in Punjab over three alleged incidents of “sacrilege” in the state, with two of them — one at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the other at a village gurudwara in Kapurthala — resulting in the suspects being lynched and killed.
Following these incidents, there has been a renewed demand for stricter punishment for sacrilege cases, with the Congress government facing heat from religious bodies.
Harjinder Singh Dhami, head of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), has accused the Congress government of inaction. Referring to past incidents in which suspects were deemed “mentally ill” and released, the SGPC head said “there has been a failure of the government and its agencies” in investigating who was working “behind such culprits”.
Congress leaders, from Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi to former CM Amarinder Singh, have in the meantime demanded the highest level of investigation into such cases. State Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu has gone a step further and asked for the public execution of those found guilty. Sukhbir Singh Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has demanded a CBI probe.
The issue of sacrilege has haunted Punjab politics for years, and in fact contributed to the Akali Dal’s defeat in the 2017 state elections. Back then, Congress veteran Amarinder Singh had made it one of his poll promises to punish people who disrespected the Guru Granth Sahib. The ruling Akali-BJP alliance was at the time facing criticism for not adequately handling desecration cases from 2015.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)