THE Punjab Assembly has upped the ante on stifling intellectual freedom in an environment where the cultural and political space is becoming increasingly securitised. Last Wednesday, on the pretext of protecting religion — an ever-convenient ruse to ensure maximum participation and minimal resistance — the provincial legislators passed the Punjab Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill 2020. The law makes the publication of objectionable material punishable by five years maximum in prison and up to Rs500,000 fine. Several stipulations within it, such as those pertaining to derogatory remarks against holy personages and hate speech, are already covered by existing legislation. For instance, Section 298-A of the PPC pertains to “derogatory remarks against holy personages … either spoken or written”, including Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), his family or his companions. Similarly, Section 8 of the Anti-Terrorism Act prohibits acts intended or likely to stir up sectarian hatred through “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” including publication and distribution of such material. Some aspects of the new law are clearly aimed at pandering to the ultra-right lobby; others underscore the ‘otherisation’ of certain persecuted religious minorities — and thereby further fuel hatred against them.

The new law can justifiably be criticised for being superfluous and capable of stoking more religious intolerance, which this country can well do without. That said, the most alarming aspect of it is the manner in which it is to be implemented. The law provides for a director general of public relations of the Punjab government to function as a one-stop shop through which all books printed, reprinted and reproduced in the province will be vetted — a censorship central as it were. All publishers are bound to submit to the DGPR four copies of every edition of each title they print. And the DGPR has been empowered to inspect printing presses, bookstores and publishing houses; he can confiscate books before or after they are printed if they, in his assessment, contain ‘objectionable’ content. Such sweeping powers conjure up images of the most repressive eras in history when knowledge was treated as inherently subversive and the right to freedom of expression had yet to find universal acceptance.

It was at such a time in 1644 that the celebrated poet John Milton in protest against censorship in England had written in the Areopagitica: “And what do they tell us vainly of new opinions, when this very opinion of theirs, that none must be heard but whom they like, is the worst and newest opinion of all others, and is the chief cause why sects and schisms do so much abound....” There has been an outcry from civil society, and even from within the PTI government, against the passage of the law. One hopes better sense will prevail, for there lie within this piece of legislation the seeds of grievous, long-term harm to society.

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2020

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