Indian poet Surjit Gag was arrested July 9, 2017 for blasphemy, on charges of hurting religious sentiments. He is alleged to have violated section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code, a law which criminalizes “deliberate and malicious” acts intended to outrage religious feelings.
Gag is well known in Punjab as the author of a book called Gag Bani, and for his controversial writings. On July 8, Gag posted a poem to Facebook titled Main Te Nanak (I and Nanak), in which the poet compares himself to Sikh master Guru Nanak DEv Ji in order to criticize the current state of Punjabi society. After Gag published the poem, a complaint was lodged by Ranjit Singh, on behalf of the central Sikh governing body Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib. “We can’t tolerate a word against our Gurus,” Ranjit Singh said.
Gag has confronted social and political issues directly in his work and provoked strong reactions before. Last year he read a poem critical of the Sikh dominated political party in power at the time while its education minister was in the room.
A number of local organizations have condemned Gag’s arrest on the grounds that it is politically motivated and an attempt to use religious hate speech laws to suppress peaceful freedom of expression. These groups include the Punjab Students Union, the Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU), the Tarksheel Society, and the Indian Federation of Trade Union (IFTU). We are adding our voice to theirs as religious hate speech laws should not be used to stifle artist social commentary and political dissent — this sets a very dangerous precedent. You can join us by sending a message of your own.