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Punjab sacrilege row: Laws that deal with religious desecration, violence

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In a span of 24 hours, Punjab was rocked by two incidents of lynching following two attempts of sacrilege -- one at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, and the other at Nizampur village of Kapurthala. The Punjab government has set up a Special Investigative Team (SIT) to look into the issue.

Punjab sacrilege row: Laws that deal with religious desecration, violence

Punjab was rocked by two incidents of lynching in just 24 hours after two separate attempts of sacrilege. The acts of desecration or “beadbi” occurred at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, and the Nizampur village of Kapurthala. The Punjab government has already constituted a Special Investigative Team (SIT) to look into the issue.

Incidents of “beadbi”

The first incident of sacrilege occurred at the Sri Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) complex, where the deceased accused jumped across the golden railings and entered the sanctum sanctorum, picking up a diamond-encrusted sword and approaching a priest reciting prayers. The man was caught by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) task force members before he was thrashed by an agitated crowd as he was being taken away.

The second alleged incident occurred hours later in Nizampur village of Kapurthala, where a youth was lynched for attempting to steal from a gurudwara and allegedly desecrate the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag. However, the police said that no incident of sacrilege took place at the gurudwara.

IGP Gurbinder Singh Dhillon said, “There was no desecration of Nishan Sahib at Gurdwara Nizampur where an unidentified migrant labourer was lynched to death… Three policemen, including one SHO and two ASIs, were injured in an attack by the unruly mob while police were trying to save the life of the victim.”

Another incident was also witnessed in Batala.

“Surprisingly, three incidents occurred. The Batala incident did not come in the limelight since it was not reported and no sacrilege took place…There was no sacrilege in Kapurthala, either…It is all very suspicious,” Punjab’s officiating DGP Sidhharth Chattopadhyaya told The Indian Express.

What sections of the law govern such matters?

The Indian legal system under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, has introduced several sections that deal with incidences of religious desecration, violence and more.

Section 153A of the IPC deals with “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony”. Section 153A governs matters both of spoken and written words, and actions taken to provoke disharmony in the community. Punishment for promoting enmity, if found guilty, extends to three years of imprisonment or a fine, or both. If the offence takes place within a place of worship, then the punishment is extended to imprisonment of up to five years and a fine.

Section 295 of the IPC covers the matters of desecrating or defiling places of worship. Subsection A covers “deliberate and malicious acts” done by individuals to outrage the religious feelings of any religious group. Punishment for Section 295A is imprisonment up to three years, or a fine, or both.

Section 505 of the IPC is aimed at stopping individuals from spreading false news with the intention of causing fear and alarm among the public and to agitate them. Section 505C also specifically calls out attempts to incite violence between communities by using statements that create ill-will and enmity. Those who violate the section are punishable with imprisonment which may extend to three years or with a fine, or with both. In case the false statements to incite agitation and cause fear are made in places of worship or during religious processions, then the punishment is extended to imprisonment of up to five years and a fine.

Additionally, other sections of the IPC may be applied in the context of the exact nature of the offences conducted. Sections for thievery, attempted murder, incitement of violence and more may be applied in incidents.

A political thorn

Attempts of sacrilege have been common in the state. Several incidences had occurred in 2015, where pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were torn in different parts of the state. In response, the previous SAD-BJP government had brought amendments to the IPC and the Criminal Procedural Code to increase the punishment under Section 295A to life imprisonment under the amendment of Section 295AA.

While the proposed legislation was passed by members of the state assembly, the Union Minister of Home Affairs refused to forward the Bill to the President, as they involved amendments to Central Acts. The MHA returned the bills to the Punjab government as the ministry believed that the amendments would violate principles of secularism enshrined within Article 14 of the Constitution of India and the punishment was excessive in law.

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