A couple of days ago, comedian Kiku Sharda was remanded to 14 days judicial custody for mimicking self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh ‘Insaan’ on a comedy show on TV. This faith pedlar is the leader of a cult called Dera Sacha Sauda with millions of followers across Punjab and Haryana.

Kiku Sharda has been booked under the draconian Section 295A (India’s Blasphemy Law). The irony of accusing a comedian for “outraging religious sentiments” while mocking a shaman who is under the CBI scanner himself, for a plethora of offences – from abduction, murder and even castration (no kidding!) – is so stark it makes my head throb.

The tale of how this law came about must be familiar to Pakistani readers. In the 1920s, Mahashay Rajpal – who was the publisher of banned book was acquitted by the Lahore High Court in pre-independent India, on charges of insulting the Prophet of Islam (at the time there was no law protecting hurt feelings). A 19-year-old illiterate by the name of Ilm-ud-Deen, roused by the exhortations of a semi-literate local Imam decided to right this terrible injustice. He went to Rajpal's shop and stabbed a knife through the latter's blasphemous heart. He eventually walked willingly and unrepentant to the gallows, much to the chagrin of his acclaimed defence counsel Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Ilm-ud-Deen attained martyrdom and a hero's funeral; his name marked scores of shrines, squares and roads in Jinnah's future “quasi-democracy” of Pakistan. Section 295A (insult to religion) was the progeny of our British masters, born out of this sordid saga.

Why should any belief be immune to satire or scrutiny in a progressive society? If we can sketch caricatures of politicians, criticise the establishment’s policies, fervently debate facts related to humanities and sciences, why are medieval fairytales and superstitions exempt? "Offending sentiments" is the most infantile of all personal injury claims. One that should be taken only as seriously as you would a Harry Potter fan expressing outrage over a caricature of Albus Dumbledore.

Holding eccentric religious ideologies on a higher pedestal than the fundamental right to free speech in a secular democracy, is a recipe for disaster. We can see how well that has worked out in our neighbourhood. If the recent riots in Malda are any indication, India is heading down the same road that Pakistan and Bangladesh have taken on their theocratic sojourn.

Kamlesh Tiwari, a right-wing Hindutva zealot uttered a comment deemed ‘offensive’ by many Muslims. In response, no less than 250,000 Muslims took to the streets in various states, from Uttar Pradesh to West Bengal. One such rally in Malda went awry, and the whole town burned for days. 30 cops were injured and public property torched.

The incident gives us a unique glimpse into the religious mind. A false accusation of homosexuality is no different from an accusation of being left-handed. Human beings are as much in control of their sexual orientation as they are of the asymmetries of hand co-ordination. That the government and courts of the world’s largest secular democracy must involve themselves in such petty squabbles, and chastise the rabble-rousers is preposterous.

With a right-wing Hindutva government at the centre that takes ancient fictional stories just as seriously as the marauding mobs they govern, it looks like a grim start to the year 2016 for secularism and free speech in India.