In Punjab, blasphemy may invite life imprisonment

Punjab’s Congress government is mulling a tough blasphemy law. The state Cabinet approved a Bill to this effect at its meeting on 21 August 2018. Those convicted under the proposed law may face life imprisonment. Besides, the ministry also cleared a proposal to grant 20 per cent reservation in promotions to SCs.

The Punjab government led by Amarinder Singh has taken two decisions that could prove to be significant: first, a provision for punishment up to life imprisonment for those insulting religious scriptures and second, reservation for SCs in promotions. The government says that the first decision is aimed at promoting social harmony in the state.

The Cabinet approved a Bill providing for 14 per cent reservation to SCs in Group A and B jobs and 20 per cent in Group C and D. If the assembly clears the Bill, SCs would get reservation in promotions with effect from 20 January 2018 under Article 16(A) of the Constitution.

A motorcycle rally in Punjab demanding reservation in promotions

A Constitution bench of the Supreme Court, which is currently hearing a petition on reservation in promotions for SC and ST employees, had recently wondered whether reservations should for perpetuity. The court said that reservations in entry-level positions were logical but if a person became the chief secretary of a state taking advantage of the provision for reservation, the bench asked, should his family members continue to get this facility? The idea behind reservations is to help sections that have been historically marginalized ­– mainly due to the caste system – and are unable to compete with others as equals. The court’s argument was that when prosperous OBCs could be denied reservations on the ground that they belonged to the creamy layer, why the same couldn’t be done vis-à-vis the SCs and the STs. Earlier, the Union government had told the court that due to the Supreme Court judgment in the 2006 Nagaraj case, the SCs and STs were not being given reservation in promotions. The Attorney General, representing the Government of India, told the Court that the judgment should be revisited as these sections have been facing deprivation for centuries.

Chief Minister Amarinder Singh at the Golden Temple, Amritsar

A leading daily published from Punjab says that the issue is about healthy competition and that those above a certain socio-economic level should not get these facilities. But the political parties are refraining from making their stand on the issue clear. They are weighing its political implications. The petitioner in the case argued that it would be improper to grant reservations without gathering quantifiable data on the communities concerned and that once a person gets a job on the basis of reservation, his promotion should be based on merit.

According to the Nagaraj judgment, SCs and STs can be granted reservation in promotions only if there is quantifiable data to prove that their representation in government jobs was low and that the measure would be in the interest of administration. The five-judge Constitution bench, headed by Justice Dipak Misra, contends that the state’s duty is not only to grant reservations but also strike a balance.

 

That is just what the Amarinder Singh government appears to be doing here. According to the latest figures, OBCs form 31.3 per cent of the population of Punjab; SCs, 31.9 per cent; upper castes 33 per cent; and others, 3.8 per cent. Clearly, the decision is in the interest of a large section of government employees.

Life imprisonment for blasphemy

The Cabinet also approved amendments to the IPC and the CrPC to make blasphemy an offence punishable with life imprisonment. A report in The Indian Express, Chandigarh, has likened the proposed law to the blasphemy law prevalent in Pakistan. The government, however, says that its decision was prompted by several incidents involving insult of religious scriptures. A government spokesperson said the Cabinet has approved insertion of a new section 295A in the IPC, which states that those who damage or otherwise insult the Guru Granth Sahib, the Shrimadbhagvat Gita, the Quran or the Bible with the intent to hurt the religious sentiments of the people will be liable to be punished with life imprisonment. The spokesperson said that the CrPC (Punjab Amendment) Bill 2018 and the IPC (Punjab Amendment) Bill 2018 would be tabled in the next session of the assembly. The new Bills will replace of CrPC (Punjab Amendment) Act 2016 and the IPC (Punjab Amendment) Act 2016, which were cleared in the 12th session of the 14th Vidhan Sabha. The proposed Bill provides for imprisonment up to 10 years for causing damage to places of worship.

Translation: Amrish; copy-editing: Anil


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