'India may well be a religious country, but that is precisely why we need to avoid criminalising blasphemy,' argues Mihir S Sharma.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
The problem with laws criminalising speech is that they wind up being the opposite of what laws should be: They will be applied indiscriminately.
Everyone eventually uses them, or becomes their target.
Consider the recent arrest in Delhi of the defence analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra.
He was arrested, apparently, because the Biju Janata Dal-run Odisha government took offence at a sarcastic video he posted at the Konark Sun Temple.
In the video, Iyer-Mitra riffed on the erotic sculptures for which Konark is famous, and jokingly argued that, given the attitudes to sexual morality of the current self-appointed custodians of Hinduism, the temple could not have been built by Hindus but by outsiders conspiring against the religion.
This was not even a subtle point; it was blindingly obvious what Iyer-Mitra was driving at.
And yet he was arrested.
Note that this pokes holes in several narratives.
For one, it is not only the Bharatiya Janata Party that will arrest you for offending religion.
The BJD is not the BJP, though the local BJP supported the arrest.
And the debate demanding his arrest in the Odisha legislative assembly was led by Congress legislators.
Consider another point: It is sometimes argued by the Hindutva right that you might get in trouble for mocking Islam or Christianity, but not Hinduism.
Well, a fairly strident right-winger has just gotten arrested for talking about a temple, which should put paid to that idea as well.
Now, we can talk about how humiliating it is for the people of Odisha to have legislators, administrators and policemen so completely humourless that they couldn't figure out the point that was being made.
We can perhaps feel optimistic that Iyer-Mitra was granted bail by a group of lawyers that included prominent young members of both the Congress and the BJP.
But the larger point must not be lost sight of: That laws like Section 295A, which criminalise blasphemy, will constantly lend themselves to this sort of misuse.
It is not just humiliating for the people of Odisha; it is also embarrassing for the rest of us -- particularly as it came on the very day that India, at the United Nations, was sententiously mocking Pakistan for its blasphemy laws.
Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
It would be nice to think that Section 295A is on the way out, that the national conversation is turning against it the way it did against Section 377, which criminalised homosexuality and was recently read down by the Supreme Court.
The problem, however, is that the opposite seems to be happening.
Consider the awful events in Punjab, where the Congress government of Amarinder Singh has decided to even more closely emulate Pakistan and make the act of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Bible, the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita punishable by life imprisonment.
This follows a rejection by the Centre of an earlier attempt by the Akali Dal-BJP government to create a Guru Granth Sahib-specific Section 295AA.
The Aam Aadmi Party, a powerful third force in Punjab politics, also supports the amendment, with Harvinder Singh Phoolan threatening to resign as MLA if cases aren't filed for blasphemy.
It is worth noting that it is supposed desecration that led to most of the prominent blasphemy cases in Pakistan, which have wound up being an effective way to terrorise minorities.
The leader of Pakistani Punjab lost his life after defending one such person; the leaders of Indian Punjab have chosen to empower fanatics equivalent to those who killed Salman Taseer.
It is an incomprehensible act of self-harm.
Yes, India is a religious country.
Some liberals, therefore, believe that we must walk on tiptoe around the 'sensitivities' of the religious.
This is a point of view that is both immoral and stupid.
It is immoral because it privileges one set of beliefs above others, and forces free-thinkers into silence.
It hurts both the irreligious and the religious; the former are silenced, and the latter are never given the opportunity to think through and defend their beliefs.
And it is stupid because the nature of religious fanaticism is such that no concession is enough; more will always be demanded.
Section 295A is not enough; now we have 295AA.
Yes, India may well be a religious country, but that is precisely why we need to avoid criminalising blasphemy.
The power of religious belief in our lives is already so great that it does not need the power of the State on its side.
This greatly reduces individual freedom -- and in fact makes us into subjects and not citizens. Any one of us can be arrested at any time.
If we pretend to be a liberal democracy at the United Nations, let us at least try to be one at home.