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.