Chandigarh: The debate about sacrilege in Sikhism — and what the appropriate punishment for such conduct is — has heated up again after some incidents in the past few years.
The lynching of a man Saturday for allegedly trying to desecrate the Guru Granth Sahib at the Golden Temple adds to what has been a long-simmering controversy.
In another incident, on 15 October, Lakhbir Singh, a resident of Tarn Taran, was allegedly hacked to death at Delhi’s Singhu border by a group of Nihang Sikhs. The Nihangs claimed to have been doling out “punishment” to Lakhbir for “disrespecting” their sacred text — the Sarbloh Granth.
The Nihangs justified their act by saying that as governments had “consistently failed” in giving Sikhs justice in the numerous cases of sacrilege that had taken place in the past few years, they had decided to impart “instant justice” for what they saw as the “ultimate act of crime”.
The killings have led to a discussion around the concept of sacrilege in Sikhism, and the laws governing sacrilege as applied to them.
High rate of sacrilege cases, insanity pleas
For some years now, Punjab has topped the country in the number of sacrilege cases. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that from 2018 to 2020, Punjab’s rate of crimes (number of cases divided by population in lakhs) registered under Sections 295 to 297 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deal with sacrilege, was the highest.
In 2018, Punjab’s sacrilege crime rate was 0.7 per cent, while in other states across the country this ranged between 0.1 and 0.4 per cent. The figure for Punjab was 0.6 per cent in 2019 and 0.5 per cent in 2020.
In 2017, when the NCRB first started giving data about these crimes, Goa registered the highest rate at 0.8 per cent, and Punjab was second highest at 0.6 per cent. The total number of cases registered in Punjab from 2017 to 2020 was 721.
It is alleged by some that in most such cases, the culprit is not punished in accordance with the law but let off on grounds of “insanity”.
Issuing a statement following the Saturday incident at the Golden Temple, the president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Harjinder Singh Dhami, said, “Such unfortunate incidents have taken place at many other places also, but the governments did not take it seriously. It is unfortunate that instead of exposing the forces working behind the culprits who had been arrested in the past, they were released after being declared as mentally ill.
“It is the failure of the governments and agencies who could not reach the people behind such culprits.”
The Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of the Sikhs, also referred to this “insanity plea” while issuing a statement about October’s Singhu border episode.
“Investigative agencies have failed to get justice to the Sikhs in the over 400 cases registered by police in the past four-five years. No culprit has been given such exemplary punishment that can heal the simmering wounds among Sikhs,” said Giani Harpreet Singh, jathedar (head priest) of the Akal Takht.
Sacrilege or ‘beadbi’ in Sikhism
The concept of beadbi or sacrilege in Sikhism emanates largely from the fact that Sikhs consider the Guru Granth Sahib to be a living Guru.
“This is how it was ordained by the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. The Guru Granth Sahib and everything associated with it is sacred. Since the Guru is considered to be a living being, any harm or disrespect to it is a serious offence for the Sikhs,” Dharam Singh, a former professor of Sikh studies at Punjabi University, Patiala, and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, told ThePrint.
Apart from the Guru Granth Sahib, the ‘gurdwara’, which literally means the abode of the guru, and the articles used in the service of the Guru, are sacred. The ‘dastaar’ or the ‘pagri’, the headgear worn by Sikhs, is also considered sacred, as is the ‘kirpan‘, the sword that baptised Sikhs carry.
The hair and beard maintained by Sikhs are also sacred, and touching or disrespecting these also amounts to sacrilege.
“An alteration of Sikh religious traditions and practices, or a distortion of the history of the Gurus, is also sacrilege,” added Dharam Singh.
Sikh historian Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon said, “The Guru Granth Sahib is the sacha padshaah (the true king). He holds his darbaar like an emperor and all the etiquette of the darbaar (of being in his company) and its discipline have to be followed. In a gurdwara, you have to cover your head, be properly dressed, barefoot and follow the etiquette. Any act that infringes on the sanctity and supremacy of the Guru is beadbi.”
Acts of ‘beadbi’
Reading Sikh history as a continuum, Bhai Ranjit Singh, former jathedar of the Akal Takht, said, disrespect to the Sikh Gurus, even when it happened in the time of the Mughals, was beadbi.
“Battles took place over it. And now when the Guru Granth Sahib is the living Guru, Sikhs can similarly choose to defend its glory in whatever way they deem fit,” he said while speaking to ThePrint.
In 1993, Bhai Ranjit Singh himself was convicted for the murder of Gurbachan Singh, the head of the Sant Nirankaris, a sect with which Sikhs have had a longstanding enmity for allegedly disrespecting the Guru Granth Sahib and Sikh traditions.
In 1951, Nirankari head Satguru Avtar Singh proclaimed himself a living guru in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. His successor, Gurbachan Singh, sought to make changes in Sikh traditions and adapt these into his sect.
The Sikh-Nirankari clashes of the late 1970s and the killing of Gurbachan Singh in 1980 are considered to be the beginning of the three decades of Sikh militancy in Punjab.
Operation Blue Star, in which the Army entered the Golden Temple or Darbaar Sahib in Amritsar, the holiest of Sikh shrines, in 1984, to flush out Sikh militants, is considered the biggest incident of beadbi in modern Sikh history.
“Indira Gandhi (who ordered the Army to enter the Golden Temple) paid a price for it with her life. Men in uniform, whether from the Army or police, have not been allowed to enter the gurdwara in uniform ever since,” said Dharam Singh.
In 2007, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, donned attire like that of the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, which led to clashes between Sikhs and Dera followers. The Dera chief was booked for sacrilege and excommunicated by the Akal Takht, which also instructed all Sikhs not to have any dealings with Dera followers. The enmity between Dera followers and Sikhs continues till date.
In 2015, Punjab witnessed several incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib. A bir (form) of the Guru Granth Sahib was stolen from a village gurdwara in Faridkot in June. A few months later, pages believed to have been torn from it were found strewn in a nearby village. These incidents were followed by multiple incidents of alleged sacrilege of various Sikh texts, as well as the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita.
The law and proposed changes
For all incidents of sacrilege in Punjab, police invoke Sections 295 and 295A of the IPC. The punishment is two years’ imprisonment in the case of Section 295, which involves destruction, damage to or defiling of a “place of worship”, or “any object held sacred”.
Section 295A provides for three years of imprisonment for the “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens”.
“The years of imprisonment listed in these laws are too little. Here, we are talking about sacrilege to a living Guru, not a book or an object. We have been demanding that the punishment in the case of the Guru Granth Sahib be increased to 20 years,” said Bhai Ranjit Singh.
In Pakistan — which also follows the IPC Sections enacted by the colonial government — while Section 295 similarly leads to two years in jail, Section 295A invites 10 years of imprisonment.
In 1982, the Pakistan government added a Section 295B to protect the Quran. The punishment for defiling it is imprisonment for life. In 1986, Pakistan added Section 295C, which carries a mandatory death sentence for the use of derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed or other prophets.
In the wake of criticism for the sacrilege incidents of 2015, the then Akali-BJP government passed a bill in the state assembly that amended the IPC. This amendment added Section 295AA, which would invite life imprisonment for sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib.
But the bill did not receive the assent of the President, and was returned by the Union Home Ministry on the grounds that it was against the secular spirit of the Constitution of India.
In 2018, when Captain Amarinder Singh was chief minister, the amendment was again passed by the assembly, and it covered holy books of all religions, to tide over the objection raised by the home ministry. But this bill, too, was never enacted.
Case for stricter laws
Senior advocate Anupam Gupta told ThePrint that, although it was abolished in England in 2008, blasphemy (or ‘treason against God’) is an offence essential to the survival of multi-religious societies such as India.
This, he said, is because blasphemy (or sacrilege) is “calculated to disrupt public order” and must therefore be punished. He added that section 295A was upheld as constitutionally valid by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Ramji Lal Modi’s case (Ramji Lal Modi vs The State of U.P.) in 1957.
Gupta argued that the same argument applies to the other offence, Section 295. Peculiar to Christianity, the offence of blasphemy was secularised by the British colonial regime while enacting the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1860, and made applicable to all religions in Section 295, he said.
“If I were a judge in India, I should have no scruples about punishing a Christian who should pollute a mosque,” Thomas Babington Macaulay told the British Parliament. Macaulay saw to it that the IPC protected the religious feelings of all communities, said Gupta.
Section 295A, he continued, was added to the IPC in 1927, against the backdrop of highly charged religious feelings among Muslims that were triggered by the judgment of the Punjab High Court in the Rangila Rasul case, over the publication of a book about the Prophet Mohammed.
Originally aimed at penalising what was then known as “blasphemous libel” in England, or a scurrilous verbal or written attack upon a particular religion or its followers, the scope of Section 295A was later widened in 1961, said Gupta, to cover other acts “outraging” religious feelings.
After 1961, he said, the precise boundary between Section 295 and 295A has become rather blurred, and both sections may be invoked to penalise the same sacrilegious conduct. Gupta argued that neither of the two provisions is inconsistent with secularism. “On the contrary, they are a necessary condition of the efficacy of secularism in a multi-religious society,” he said.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)