India

What is blasphemy? Why is the idea at odds with rule of law?

The beheading of a Hindu tailor in Rajasthan’s Udaipur for a social media post supporting (now-suspended BJP spokesperson) Nupur Sharma over her “blasphemous” remarks against Prophet Muhammad is being treated by the central government as an act of terror.

The brutal killing and its filming by the two cleaver-wielding Muslim men, who were arrested quickly, have triggered massive outrage, also escalating the debate around the idea of blasphemy. Let’s first understand what it is and its origin before moving to other questions.

ORIGIN OF BLASPHEMY

Some religions or religion-based laws define blasphemy as acts or remarks that insult God or a sacred religious figure or object. The original idea behind treating blasphemy as a crime was to ensure complete reverence and protect religions as they evolved.

But soon, other motivations also emerged. From ancient to medieval times, rulers considered themselves undefiable. They sought to project religion and state as one to assume divinity with titles like Zil-e-Ilahi (the shadow of God). They used political powers and the premise of blasphemy to crush opposing voices.

Countries like Pakistan have penalties for blasphemy that range from a fine to the death sentence. But laws against blasphemy have often been used globally to persecute people for contrarian beliefs and activities, drawing frequent criticism from the United Nations and several human rights organisations.

More disturbingly, it’s not unusual for members of terror or extremist organisations, taught and trained in radicalisation centres, to call for the beheading of those accused of blasphemy or actually carry out the extra-judicial medieval punishment. And as we have seen, this is no longer confined to places like Syria.

ALSO READ | Pak denies Udaipur killing accused’s links to Karachi-based Islamist outfit

SITUATION IN INDIA

India is a democratic polity and society of multiple faiths governed by the only book that matters in the courts: the constitution.

What puts the idea of blasphemy at odds with India’s rule of law is the fact that the constitution allows its people the right to freedom of speech and expression with reasonable restrictions.

Naturally, India has no law dedicatedly dealing with blasphemy. But the Indian Penal Code (IPC) has provisions (Sections 154, 295, 295A, 296, 297, and 298, with jail sentences ranging from one year to three years) to tackle insult to a religious group or communal tension and violence.

Fact-checking website Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair’s arrest by the Delhi Police for allegedly hurting religious sentiments through a 2018 Twitter post has been called unjust by his lawyers and his supporters, who said the tweet was actually a screen-grab from an old movie. But ultimately, the case is before a court of law that is expected to decide it on merit. And then there are higher courts.

Punjab is the only state with a separate blasphemy law to deal with the desecration of religious scriptures. But when ‘be-adbi’ or sacrilege cases happen, it’s not unusual to see mobs lynch the accused and film acts of extreme violence.

Meanwhile, parallels have also been drawn between the beheading in Udaipur and the lynching of Muslim men on suspicion of offences like cow slaughter. There, it must be acknowledged that governments need to do more to ensure no vigilante groups resort to violence and murder and accused are tried only as per the rule of law.

ALSO READ | Udaipur murder accused went to Karachi in 2014, had links with Dawat-e-Islami: Police

NEED FOR REFORMS

Activists have been fighting for religious and educational reforms but they need more support and acknowledgement of the problems from the wider population. While the ISIS-style Udaipur killers have been linked to a Pakistan-based terror network, the killing calls into question the education and religious orientation a section of the population, even if small, gets.

But the origin of the idea of blasphemy is not limited to Islam. Jesus of Nazareth was, in part, tried for blasphemy. In the Bible, Leviticus calls for the stoning of anyone who curses the God of Israel. This was before the birth of Christianity and Islam.

In short, every religion has problems and needs reforms. But there is no denying the growing need to do away with the idea of blasphemy, as it is understood by radical elements, and ensure only the rule of law prevails.

Several countries such as Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Spain and Malta have scrapped their blasphemy laws. Many democracies like the UK and Denmark that still have blasphemy laws have not enforced them in decades for obvious reasons. The US does not have a federal law against blasphemy. But Pew Research said in 2019 that 79 countries and territories out of the 198 studied around the world (40%) still had laws or policies against blasphemy.

Be that as it may, after Nupur Sharma’s remarks (which came in response to the mocking of Hindu gods), demands for a law against blasphemy in India have grown from both sides, the Vishva Hindu Parishad on the one hand, and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and other Muslim organisations on the other.

Lok Sabha MP and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor recently said there was no need for a law against blasphemy in India as the current hate speech laws and Section 295A are pretty adequate. “The existence of a blasphemy law tends to encourage both excessive frivolous litigation and mob misconduct by those who take the law into their own hands.”

ALSO READ | Police constable injured as protests against Udaipur murder turn violent in Rajsamand district

In the wake of diplomatic condemnations and backlash from the Muslim world over Nupur Sharma’s remarks, Tharoor, however, said, “Exemplary action against all offenders will have a salutary effect in reducing such cases in future.”

Sharma has been booked by the Delhi Police, which has also provided her security, given the threats to her life and her family for what she said during a TV debate. Muslim organisations continue to demand that she be arrested for her remarks.

There is no official response from the central government to the demands for a law against blasphemy in India. But rights activists have long argued that blasphemy laws are the antithesis of human rights. The United Nations has said blasphemy laws can never be human-rights compliant except when they are used to prevent incitement to religious or racial hatred. And this concern has been addressed in India’s penal provisions.

But reforms in the criminal justice system are long overdue. It is not sufficient to merely have a rule of law. The rule of law must also be enforced in totality at all times and places.

The lack of adequate courts and judges means that cases drag on for years. While delays in legal proceedings can never be a justification for violence and murder, groups in Punjab have often resorted to torture and beheading in be-adbi cases, saying successive governments failed to act against those desecrating sacred texts over the years.

In essence, extra-judicial killings can never be part of a civilised society. For context, the burning of widows was also once part of religious beliefs in parts of India, and talking against it was deemed blasphemous. Had the social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy not doggedly questioned and campaigned against such a belief, the gruesome “sati pratha” would have continued for many more years.


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