24 July 2020
A morning routine of paying obeisance and performing sewa—service—at a local gurduwara, went nightmarishly wrong for a ten-year-old girl, a Mazhabi Sikh resident of Rampura village, in Punjab’s Sangrur district. The Mazhabi Sikhs are a community of Dalits who converted to Sikhism. Early morning on 27 June, the girl went to perform sewa at the village gurudwara. According to her family, she had been visiting the gurudwara for sewa regularly since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic because her school was shut. But when the ten-year-old returned to the gurudwara the next morning, she found its management committee, and members of various Sikh religious and political outfits waiting to confront her. They accused her of committing sacrilege by tearing pages from the Guru Granth Sahib—the sacred Sikh text that is regarded by the community as an eternal living Guru—on the previous day.
The crowd interrogated her for a couple of hours before calling the police. On 28 June, officials from the local Bhawanigarh police station registered a first-information report against the ten-year-old girl for sacrilege under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. The provision criminalises “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” According to the minor’s parents, the girl and her family spent three nights in illegal police custody, and the child has been forced to hide at her relative’s house in a nearby village out of fear for her security. To inquire how a ten-year-old girl could be accused of such a crime while performing sewa, and made to undergo such an ordeal, I visited Rampura and met her family, the gurudwara’s leadership, local villagers and the police.
Multiple police officials involved in the case said that the girl had been booked to pacify Sikh organisations and to prevent any violence or untoward incident. “Asal vich eh jathebandian, religious matter nu bahut uchaal diyan ne”—These Sikh groups have made a big issue about such religious matters—one senior official told me on the condition of anonymity, adding that the police thought the girl and her family were innocent. Sandeep Garg, the senior superintendent of police of Sangrur, said that the police are investigating if the tearing off the pages was intentional or accidental. “Most likely she has done it accidentally only,” he said, further noting that the police is also investigating whether the child had been instigated to commit the act.
Garg and the gurudwara committee’s members claimed that the girl could be seen tearing the pages in the CCTV footage. But I saw the video, and the Guru Granth Sahib was not visible in it, and the footage did not show the ten-year-old commit the act that she was accused of. The girl’s parents told me that their entire family of four, including their seven-year-old son, were detained at the police station for three nights, from 28 June to 1 July, without being produced before a court. Criminal procedure prohibits the police from detaining anyone for over 24 hours without producing them before a magistrate. Moreover, Section 83 of the IPC states that no act by a child between the age of seven and 12 is an offence unless she has “attained sufficient maturity” to judge and understand its “nature and consequences.” Given these circumstances, and the apparent consensus among the police that the girl was not culpable for the offence, it is unclear why the police registered an FIR in the case at all.
The FIR against the girl states that the offence occurred between 5 am on 27 June and 1.50 pm the next day. The case was registered on the basis of a complaint by Hardev Singh, the president of the Rampura gurudwara’s management committee. Hardev said that when he went to pay obeisance at the gurudwara on 27 June, the Granthi Manpreet Singh—a priest who acts as custodian of the Guru Granth Sahib—brought the sacrilege to his notice and that of other members of the committee, Malkit Singh, Mukand Singh and Malwinder Singh. The complainant said that the Granthi told them that page numbers 641 to 654 of the sacred text were torn at the bottom. He added that the committee then looked at the footage of a CCTV camera inside the gurudwara, which they believed showed the ten-year-old deliberately desecrated the Guru Granth Sahib. The next day, Singh filed the complaint at the Bhawanigarh police station.
The local police officials denied that the family was kept in police custody for four days. Legal procedure, as prescribed under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, mandates that as soon as the police apprehend a child for an alleged offence, she must be given to the custody of a special police unit for juveniles or a child-welfare officer. The act further states that barring exceptional circumstances, the child must be released on bail immediately, and alternatively, she should be placed in an observation home. The law expressly notes, “In no case, a child alleged to be in conflict with the law shall be placed in a police lockup or lodged in a jail.”
Arshbir Singh Johal, the legal-cum-probation officer of Sangrur district’s juvenile-justice administration, told me the Bhawanigarh police did not hand over the custody of the girl and that she was not brought to the observation home at any point. He added that an FIR should not have been registered in the case at all, because the rules mandate that a case should only be registered in case of heinous offences. “In this case an FIR is registered under Section 295A, which is wrong because as per Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 it falls under the category of petty offence and only DDR was to be registered.” He was referring to the daily diary report, in which the police record every complaint before the station in a diary maintained at the police station.
But according to the police, the hostility towards the girl that they witnessed on the morning of 28 June led them to register the FIR. Upon reaching the gurudwara for sewa that morning, the ten-year-old was met by the gurudwara committee, members of the political party Shiromani Akali Dal (Mann), and local representatives of the Damdama Sahib Takht—one of five temporal seats of Sikhism—and the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, which manages gurdwaras across several states of the country. “The committee members and knowledgeable people from the village were present in the early morning hours,” the Granthi Manpreet told me. According to a second police official, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, leaders of various political parties and people reached there “at the speed of bullets,” and subjected the ten-year to an aggressive interrogation. “The atmosphere at the time was highly volatile,” the second official said. “Some of the people had even drawn their swords out.”
Manpreet discussed how the ten-year-old used to perform sewa at the gurudwara. “The girl belongs to this village and hails from Mazhabi Sikh community,” he said. “She used to come for sewa, and took the opportunity when no sangat”—devotees—“were around.” When I asked whether he believed that she did it deliberately, he claimed that there must have been somebody who instigated her to commit the act. This appeared to be a common perception. Hardev, the gurudwara committee president, told me, “That Dalit girl had been coming for the past ten-twelve days.” He added, “While the Granthi took a break for refreshments and after the women who came to pay obeisance also went back, she tore off the pages.”
Yet, all of them appeared to support the registration of the FIR. “This could have been averted, but such are the people that they target the weak and nobody dares to say a word to the mighty,” the second police official said, referring to the religious leaders who pressurised the police to lodge an FIR. Tejinder Kaur, the chairperson of the Punjab State Commission for Scheduled Castes, said she would seek a report from the district authorities about this incident. “I was shocked to hear about such absurdity, first on the part of the public and then the way the case has been handled and the ten-year-old child booked for sacrilege,” Kaur told me. “Does a ten-year-old even know what sacrilege is? The life and rights of such a small child should be protected at all costs. The police cannot attribute actions like lodging the FIR against the ten-year-old to pressure.”
The ten-year-old was subjected to questioning by the religious leaders at the gurudwara without her parents present, as they were only called and asked to come there a couple of hours later. When I visited the ten-year-old’s house, only her parents were present and the girl was at her relative’s place for her safety. The ten-year-old came from a poor family. The girl’s mother worked as an agricultural labourer while her father worked with a carpenter as a daily wager, earning just Rs 300 per day, and managing to find work on only five to seven days in a month. When I reached their house, .the girl’s mother was working in the fields. Knee-deep in mud, she rushed to wash it off before speaking with me. “We did not know what had happened that day,” she said. “We just reached the gurudwara when they called us.” The girl’s father told me that the entire family was then quizzed by the gurudwara management committee for two or three hours. “They told us that our daughter tore off the pages. Then we were sent to the police station.”
According to the father, the police repeatedly asked them whether someone had forced the girl to commit the act, or if the family held any grudge against anybody. “We have no issues with anybody,” he said. When asked how long the family was kept in police custody, she responded, “four–five days.” Both the parents emphasised that the police did not beat or harass them. On 1 July, they said, the girl and her mother were taken to the juvenile-justice board for a hearing, which granted her bail immediately. They were taken back to the police station and told by the police to flee the village. “We were told to run away lest we are killed by the Sikh organisations,” the girl’s father told me. “Then we somehow managed to flee with our faces and heads covered.” The family went and stayed at their relative’s house in a nearby village, and the parents returned with their seven-year-old son after around two weeks.
There does not appear to be much evidence to establish that the girl was responsible for the incident. According to the gurudwara committee, the CCTV footage showed her tearing the pages while folding the rumala—a silk cloth used to cover the Guru Granth Sahib. “The girl was shown the CCTV recording and admitted that the pages got twisted by her but did not admit who asked her to do so,” Manpreet said. But upon viewing the footage, I noticed that the alleged tearing took place at a spot that was not visible in the recording. In the footage, the ten-year-old girl can be seen walking inside the gurudwara and sweeping the premises, but the sacred book was kept in a location that was out of the camera’s field of view. When confronted with this detail, the anonymous police official conceded that the alleged act was not visible in the CCTV footage. But the SSP Garg, who had claimed that the ten-year-old could be seen tearing the pages in the CCTV recording, did not respond to my queries when I sent him a copy of the footage and asked him to pinpoint the exact time at which this could be seen.
Manpreet, however, insisted that the ten-year-old had torn the pages. He said the footage showed the child entering the gurudwara without covering her head, which he emphasised was her first mistake. “Then she bows along with other women before taking up the broom. She then goes to the place where Guru Granth Sahib is kept and picks a Jantri”—almanac—“and then touches the rumalas over the Guru Granth Sahib, and then tears off the pages.” When I asked whether it was not possible that the girl was just performing sewa and tore the pages, which are large and heavy to flip, by accident, he said that the police is supposed to enquire into these points.
“This is not one odd incident,” Manpreet claimed. “We got the news of sacrilege in Rajasthan. We get to hear two or three such news items every month.” He provided no explanation for how he had connected an incident from Rajasthan to a minor girl’s unproven crime in his village. Manpreet also stressed that the girl’s parents did not tender an apology or express resentment over the episode. “The parts of Maharaj were cut deep,” he said, implying the ten-year-old had cut the Sikh guru.
Kiranjot Kaur, a senior SGPC member and its former general secretary, condemned the behaviour meted out to the girl and her family. “Since when has Sikhi become so fragile that a ten-year-old girl becomes a victim of the current disrespecting Guru Granth Sahib narrative?” Kaur asked. According to her, there has been a long build up to the “present paranoia about sacrilege.” She added, “People have grown suspicious and it has also become a fund raising opportunity for some Sikh organisations who build up pressure and fear psychosis in name of Sikhi. In the case of the ten-year-old child, many agree in private conversations that what happened was inappropriate, yet most of them back out from saying so publicly.”
Kaur continued, “Sometimes when a Bir becomes old”—a term used to refer to a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib—“the paper starts disintegrating simply by touching. I wonder if this possibility was examined before coming down heavily on a girl child who was regularly doing sewa in the gurudwara. The behaviour meted out to her and her family reeks of Talibani approach, which is contrary to Sikh thought.”
RS Bains, a human-rights advocate, said that the police had committed an offence by arresting a ten-year-old child for beadbi, or sacrilege, because the idea of the Guru Granth Sahib being a living Guru is such a complex concept that a child can hardly make sense of it. “Where is the intention of a child, which is first requirement of the law dealing with crime?” Bains asked. He also questioned how the police succumbed to pressure and decided to register an FIR against the ten-year-old. “Does that mean a dozen people gathering and threatening to throw the law-and-order situation out of control entitles the police to frame an innocent in an FIR, to pacify those who outnumber an innocent—in this case, a small girl?”
The police appear to have begun a process of rectification. Sukhdev Singh, the investigating officer in the case, told me that they had begun the process to close the case. “We have set the case towards cancellation,” he said. Sukhdev said that the village panchayat had stated in writing to the police that keeping in mind the girl’s future, they would accept whatever decision the police would take in the matter. The second police official who requested anonymity told me, “They are a Sikh family, she is a child, this should not have happened. But under pressure, we had to do this.”
“What happened to us was very bad,” the girl’s mother told me on 17 July. “We are poor people.” She said that her daughter was initially very scared and would constantly be crying, but has started feeling better recently. “She didn’t share anything with us and just kept repeating that the pages got torn,” the mother continued. “She was questioned about who had told her to tear the pages, but how could she take any name when there was nobody behind this whole thing?”
The juvenile-justice board had listed the case for 22 September, but if the investigating officer’s assurances are to be believed, the police would shut the case down much before that. Yet, it appears that significant damage may already have been done. “We are still scared because of the way people and the committee members look at us,” the ten-year-old’s father said.