For Rahul and the Congress, liberalism is just a convenient stick to beat the BJP with.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi Thursday told a gathering of NRIs in Berlin that his thoughts were inspired by the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev, the first Sikh guru.
“The Guru spoke of unity in diversity and that’s what Congress party believes and fosters. What is langar? Langar means no one should go back hungry no matter how small or weak,” he said at a function organised by the Indian Overseas Congress.
A very liberal thought, one would say.
But, just look at what his own party’s chief minister – Captain Amarinder Singh – in Punjab plans to do. The Congress government wants to amend the Indian Penal Code to make “sacrilege of all religious texts punishable with life imprisonment”.
Those who will be hit the hardest by this change in law include liberals and religious reformers.
In a country where a few scenes in a semi-historical movie based on queen Padmavati can lead to mindless violence and threats, the proposed change in law creates room for more social turbulence.
But the Punjab CM wants to win more seats for his Congress party in the 2019 elections, even if that means he has to tread the illiberal path by amending Section 295A of the IPC.
Before he pontificates from foreign lands about his liberal values and those of Guru Nanak ji, shouldn’t Rahul call up his own party’s chief minister and ask him to drop the contentious clause? But, this is politics. What you say and what you do are rarely consistent. Expecting Rahul to make that call would be too much.
Forget the chilling impact the amended law could have on rationalists, artistes or on the right to free speech. The obvious fallout will be self-censorship for fear of prosecution.
It is fashionable to blame Pakistan for everything bad that is happening around us. But should we not be doing the opposite of what our neighbour has done through its controversial blasphemy laws?
Misuse of law
In January 2016, comedian Kiku Sharda was booked under Section 295A for making fun of self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. Ironically, Singh was himself booked under the same section in 2007 for hurting religious sentiments of the Sikh community by allegedly imitating Guru Gobind Singh – the 10th Sikh guru.
While Kiku was bailed out in less than 24 hours of his arrest, the self-styled godman is in jail after a CBI court found him guilty in two rape cases and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.
So, does Kiku deserve an apology now?
There are several instances of publicity hungry lawyers and individuals misusing the process to file cases against known personalities for sedition and under Section 295A. Punjab’s proposed law will only increase the vulnerability of citizens if it enters the statute books.
Courts in Punjab will be busy dealing with cases like Kiku’s on a daily basis.
A dangerous trend
And, it won’t be long before the BJP governments in different states also wake up to the potential of political power that such a law holds.
In a country where the excruciatingly long process of fighting a case is actually a bigger punishment than the possible sentence, should the citizens of Punjab and other states have one more draconian law to worry about?
What courts say
The spirit of tolerance is a wonderful thing (whose time seems to have elapsed), but liberalism pushes citizens to go beyond mere tolerance. It involves acceptance of others views.
Rahul and his party, similar to several opposition parties, like to assert their liberal politics and distinguish themselves from the BJP and the RSS.
But for most of them, liberalism is just a convenient stick to beat the BJP with, immediately dropping it when it suits them.
Last year, striking down a case under Section 295A against cricketer M.S. Dhoni for allegedly hurting religious sentiments through his portrayal as Lord Vishnu on the cover of a magazine in 2013, the Supreme Court reiterated that Section 295A “does not stipulate everything to be penalised”. It doesn’t hold that “any and every act would tantamount to insult or attempt to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of class of citizens”.
“Insults to religion offered unwittingly or carelessly or without any deliberate or malicious intention to outrage the religious feelings of that class do not come within the Section,” the bench held.
The bench was merely following the law laid down by a Constitution bench in 1957 in Ramji Lal Modi versus state of UP case. The bench had ruled that this section was to deal with only “aggravated form of insult to religion when it is perpetrated with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of that class”, something that is done with the “calculated” tendency “to disrupt the public order”.
Much before the Ramji Lal judgment, in 1927, when the central legislative assembly was debating if Section 295A should be added to the IPC, leader after leader warned of the need to balance bona fide criticism of religion with the need to protect law and order from being disturbed in the name of religion.
One member, M.K. Acharya, said, “Even if all the rest of the world should attack my religion, I don’t see why I should lose faith in myself and raise any alarm.”
Even M.A. Jinnah, the man who fought for India’s Partition, cautioned against the possibility of misuse: “genuine cases of deliberate and malicious intent” must not go unpunished, it must be ensured that “those who are engaged in the ascertainment of truth and those who are engaged in bona fide and honest criticisms of a religion shall be protected”.
But six decades later, the barometer of what could disrupt public order had changed drastically.
In the mid ‘80s, the so-called modern, educated and liberal Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi allowed himself to be pushed into taking a retrograde decision in the Shah Bano case, which till date is cited as an example of the Congress’ vote bank politics and Muslim appeasement.
But, maybe, the Congress leadership will have a simpler explanation for why the proposed amendment is not a bad idea. The sacrilege bill covers sacred texts of all religions, and is therefore non-discriminatory. Secularism at its best?
For ThePrint's smart analysis of how the rest of the media is doing its job, no holds barred, go to PluggedIn.