[Editorial] Punjab Sacrilege Issue

What does sacrilege mean?

  • The term ‘sacrilege’ means disrespecting a religious place or object.
  • In Sikhism, sacrilege is known as ‘beadbi’. This concept emanates from the fact that the Guru Granth Sahib is considered to be a living Guru (as ordained by Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru).
  • Any harm or disrespect of the Guru Granth Sahib and everything associated with it is considered as ‘beadbi’. Eg: disrespect of the Gurudwara (the shrine and the Guru’s abode), the ‘pangri’ (Sikh headgear), the ‘kirpan’ (sword), etc. is considered sacrilegious.
  • There have been many ‘beadbi’ cases in Sikh history. The Operation Blue Star of 1984 is considered as one of the biggest ‘beadbi’ incident in modern Sikh history.
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What happened in Punjab?

  • Punjab has been topping the list of states with the highest number of sacrilege cases for some years now.
  • The state witnessed several incidents of sacrilege (involving the Guru Granth Sahib) in 2015. A ‘bir’ of the Guru Granth Sahib was stolen from a Faridkot Gurudwara. Pages, allegedly from the Guru Granth Sahib, were found strewn in a village. Apart from this, there were also sacrilege cases involving the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita.
  • During the farmers’ protest, a Dalit man was mutilated by several Nihangs for allegedly committing sacrilege against the Pothi Sahib (translation book).
  • A man was lynched in the Golden Temple in Amritsar for jumping over the grills and picking up a sword. Another man was jailed for throwing a copy of Gutka Sahib into the lake at the Golden Temple.
  • Recently, a man was hacked to death for sacrilege in a Kapurthala Gurudwara.

What is law on this subject?

  • The Indian Penal Code has provisions for penalizing sacrilege:
    • Section 295 deals with destruction, damage or defiling of aplace of worship”, or “any sacred object”. It provides for a 2 year prison term.
    • Section 295A deals with “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens”. It provides for a 3 year prison term.
  • In 2015, an amendment was made to add Section 295AA to penalize the sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib with life imprisonment. However, it failed to receive the assent of the President on grounds that it wasn’t in conformance with the Constitution’s secular spirit.
  • This was attempted again in 2018, but the new Bill covered the holy books of all religions. However, this Bill wasn’t enacted either.

What is the way ahead?

  • Experts opine that law against blasphemy is vital for multi-religious societies because, as an offence, blasphemy/ sacrilege is intended to disrupt public order and must be punished. Political leaders have been calling for stricter laws for trying sacrilege cases.
  • The recent sacrilege attempt is condemnable, however, the silence on the crime of lynching an alleged culprit, that too at the holiest of Sikh shrines, is chilling.
  • Across the spectrum, politicians and other leaders have denounced the sacrilege attempt and have called for a probe into the incident. However, none have condemned the mob lynching that followed the incident.
  • This silence is being attributed to the emotive nature of sacrilege issue in the state and allegations of the culprits not being punished in most cases and being let off on grounds of insanity. It is also being attributed to the upcoming elections.
  • But keeping the silence on the issue could embolden mobs to mete out vigilante justice.
  • The government and the political parties need to call out the lynching incidents and take efforts to lower the temperature on the issue. Leaving their strategic silence to speak louder than their words on the issue would lead to the sacrilege issue consuming all other problems.
  • If the government and the political leadership abdicate their responsibility to mediate, it would shrink the space for other conversations, which are desperately needed in light of the upcoming elections:
  • The upcoming elections could be an opportunity for the state to start a new beginning. Political parties and the voters must be free to discuss to find the best solution to the problem. They mustn’t be constrained by spectres that lead to suspicion.
  • The people of Punjab, especially its Sikh community, have set an example on many occasions with their forthrightness and generosity of spirit, even when mob violence threatened constitutionalism and the rule of law elsewhere.
  • It is time for the state to stand up against the 2nd crime too, with the same unambiguousness with which the 1st crime was condemned.

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