The Punjab Assembly has passed a Bill, paving the way for awarding life imprisonment to those guilty of desecrating the Guru Granth Sahib. The Bill also aims to increase the punishment for desecrating other religious texts from two years to 10 years.
The Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2016, assumes significance in light of the incidents of desecration of Sikh holy books in the state last year, which had led to a political upheaval across Punjab.
But the intentions and timing of the Bill are being questioned. It is being described as a 'populist', 'politically-motivated' move by the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). It is also being seen as a draconian measure, that is not in the interest of the people.
Meanwhile, Congress leader Charanjit Singh Channi had demanded in the Assembly that there should be equal punishment for the desecration of holy books of all religions.
The Bill was moved by Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal, saying it was in public interest to make stringent legal provisions in order to curb instances of desecrating holy texts. He said the government decided to increase the punishment after consultation with the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) and the Sant Samaj.
Just a week ago, state revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia had demanded capital punishment for those indulging in acts of sacrilege.
In a Zero Hour discussion in the Assembly, Majithia, while airing concern over the recent case of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib at the gurudwara of village Ram Diwali in Amritsar district, said it was a very sensitive and emotive issue for 'mankind' that Sri Guru Granth Sahib, which has been revered as a 'Living Guru', has been targeted by miscreants to disturb the peace and harmony of the state.
He had suggested before the house that such acts of sacrilege must be considered as a 'rarest of the rare' crime, and the culprits must be sentenced to capital punishment under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.
Punjab had witnessed a series of incidents of desecration of Guru Granth Sahib last year, starting from village Burj Jawahar Singh Wala in Faridkot district on 1 June.
The worst instance had come to light from Bargari village in the same district, where more than 110 pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were found lying on the ground in front of a gurdwara. This had led to massive public outrage.
There were more incidents over the next three days in Ferozepur, Faridkot, Muktsar, Sangrur, Nawanshahr, Adampur and Tarn Taran.
The killing of two persons and injuries to several more when the police opened fire on protestors near Behbal Kalan village in Faridkot, had further fuelled public unrest.
While there were demands for the resignation of the state government and the imposition of President's Rule in Punjab, a large number of Akali Dal politicians and even SGPC members had resigned in protest over the state government's failure to protect the holy books.
The Congress MLA from Khadoor Sahib constituency, Ramanjit Singh Sikki, had also tendered his resignation, and the party did not even contest the by-poll.
While there have been some arrests in connection with these incidents, nothing concrete has come out in terms of who was behind the entire episode.
A probe into the Behbal Kalan firings is being carried out by a fact-finding mission led by former Press Council of India chairman Justice (Retd) Markandey Katju. The probe is being carried out on the invitation of groups like Sikhs for Human Rights, the Punjab Human Rights Organisation and Lawyers for Human Rights International.
The government also set up a probe panel under Justice (Retd) Zora Singh to probe the incidents of sacrilege and the Behbal Kalan violence.
The reports of both these commissions are awaited. Reportedly, the matter is also being investigated by the CBI.
While announcing the Congress decision not to contest the Khadoor Sahib by-poll, Congress president Amarinder Singh had attacked CM Parkash Singh Badal, saying: "Not a single person has been identified, leave aside punishing them for the sacrilege. Nor has any action been taken against the guilty police officials responsible for the firing and killing of peaceful protestors."
Accusing Badal of not getting to the bottom of things, he said: "It was Badal's decision to have some sort of controlled destabilisation in the state. Amarinder also pointing out that the government wanted to distract people from its failures on all fronts.
There have been voices claming that the incidents took place when the farmers' movement against the state government was at its peak. They were protesting against the government response to the farm crisis in the form of farmer suicides, repeated crop failures, farm indebtedness and supply of spurious pesticides.
The Bill passed by the state government is being seen as an attempt by Badal to woo back the electorate that has been angry over the incidents.
Political commentator Hameer Singh said: "There are doubts over their intentions. This is an emotional issue. There has been no independent investigation. Is enacting such laws the only way to check these practices? What would putting people behind bars achieve?
"It is a social issue. Society should be strengthened from inside to check such happenings. It just points to what kind of society are we living in."
Hameer sees the enactment of the law as a continuation of the processes at work across the nation, in the name of nationalism and religion.
Sumail Sidhu, who had contested the Khadoor Sahib by-poll as an independent candidate, said: "This is a draconian measure being introduced in the name of respecting sentiments. The question is: how would you hold a person responsible for sacrilege? Suppose the palanquin carrying a holy book falls after a skirmish or chaos, whom would you blame for it? The values enshrined and exalted in the Guru Granth Sahib, like respect for mankind, labour, respect for women etc are under serious threat in the state today. These values are being trampled upon and, actually, those in power are indulging in sacrilege."
Sidhu pointed out that it is for the people to bring about the egalitarian milieu in Punjab, and preserve its pluralistic culture. Only then can the actual honour of the holy books be restored.
Sociologist Manjit Singh sees it as an attempt to take shelter from real issues.
"One needs to understand that the more you enact such stringent laws, the more you encourage people against whom the Act is purported to be. This has happened in the case of NDPS Act, which was enacted in the 1990s. Perhaps this is being done by them to satisfy their followers. What is the need to bring about an Act when the actual purpose stands defeated?" he asked.
Senior advocate Navkiran Singh, who has been taking up human rights issues for more than two decades, begs to differ. While agreeing that the passing of the Bill is politically motivated, he said: "These things are right if they keep the social fabric intact. The proposed law will obviously cover all the holy books of all the religions. There cannot be a communal law. But at the same time, such knee-jerk reactions can be very serious also. The timing of the Bill is politically questionable."
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