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India: Punjab Passes Amendments to Indian Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure Making Sacrilege of Certain Religious Texts a Crime

(Sept. 10, 2018) On August 28, 2018, the Punjab Legislative Assembly (Punjab Vidhan Sabha) passed the Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018 and the Code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018 to introduce amendments to the Indian Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure (applicable only in the state of Punjab) that make committing sacrilege against certain religious texts punishable with life imprisonment. (Punjab Passes Bills Making Desecration of Religious Texts Punishable with Life Term, THE WIRE (Aug. 28, 2018).)

On August 21, 2018, the Cabinet of the State Government of Punjab approved the amendments with the stated aim of “taking a major step towards curbing such incidents [of sacrilege] and maintaining communal harmony in the state.” (Press Release, Government of Punjab, Punjab Cabinet Okays Amendments to CrPC & IPC to Make Sacrilege of All Religious Texts Punishable with Life Imprisonment (Aug. 21, 2018).)

The Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018 includes the insertion of Section 295AA into the Penal Code to provide that “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Geeta, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life.” (Id.) Section 295 was also reportedly amended to increase the term of imprisonment for the offense of “injuring or defiling [a] place of worship with [the] intent to insult the religion of any class” from two years to 10 years. (INDIAN PENAL CODE, Act No. 45 of 1860, § 295, National Informatics Centre’s India Code website; Punjab Assembly Passes Bill Seeking Life Sentence for Sacrilege of Religious Texts, THE HINDU (Aug. 28, 2018).)

Background of the Amendments

In April 2017, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, who leads the Congress party government, set up a commission called the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission to investigate “various incidents of sacrilege of the holy Guru Granth Sahib and other religious texts.” (Press Release, Government of Punjab, Justice (RETD) Ranjit Singh Submits Full & Final Report on Sacrilege Cases to Punjam CM (Aug. 16, 2018).) The Commission was to investigate incidents in the “previous two years as well as the police firing on villagers protesting one such incident in October 2015. The firing at Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan had left two people dead and several injured.” (Sruthisagar Yamunan, Punjab’s Move to Expand India’s Blasphemy Laws Is a Blow to Freedom of Expression, SCROLL.IN (Aug. 23, 2018).) The Punjab Chief Minister accepted the recommendations of the Commission. (Id.)

In 2016 two bills—the Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2016 and the Code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2016—which amended the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, respectively, were passed by the Punjab Assembly during the previous Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party government, establishing life imprisonment “for any sacrilege of the holy Guru Granth Sahib,” the religious scripture of the Sikh religion. According to one report “[t]he bills were introduced after several incidents related to the desecration of the holy book in various parts of the state were reported in 2015. The earlier bill passed by the state Assembly in March 2016 had been objected to by the Centre on the grounds that it should include punishment for sacrilege against all religions and not exclusively for the Sikh religion.” (Vandana, How Congress Govt in Punjab Is Attacking Freedom of Speech with Law Against “Sacrilege” of Religious Texts, DAILY O (Aug. 22, 2018).)

Though the provincial government has defended the move as justified for preserving communal harmony in the state, certain sections of the public and media have termed the amendments regressive, politically motivated, and a threat to freedom of speech and expression, with some even comparing them to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. (“Is This Pakistan?” Punjab Cabinet Faces Ire for Making Sacrilege of Religious Text Punishable for Life, ZEE NEWS (Aug. 22, 2018); Punjab’s Effort to Criminalise Blasphemy Further Is Dangerous, HINDUSTAN TIMES (Aug. 24, 2018).)