India state mulls blasphemy law in "smoking Jesus" row

GUWAHATI, India (Reuters Life!) - Christian outrage at a school book picture showing Jesus Christ holding a beer bottle and a cigarette has spurred authorities in northeastern India to draft an anti-blasphemy law for schools.

Police in Meghalaya state have seized the notebooks and are taking a New-Delhi based private publisher to court on accusations of offending religious sentiments.

In the notebooks, which were meant for handwriting classes, the Jesus picture accompanies the word “idol” and is used to illustrate the letter ‘I’.

“The proposed law will help the government take action against such publishers,” Ampareen Lyngdoh, the state of Meghalaya’s education minister, told Reuters on Tuesday.

“In absence of such laws, officials are unable to take action against publishers who commit such offences, which leads to public outrage.”

The publisher has apologized to the people of Meghalaya and recalled all copies of the notebook from the market. The picture has also enraged Christians in the northern Punjab state and sparked protests, local media said.

Christian organizations across the state have condemned the incident and demanded the government pass a law to monitor all school books for offensive content before they are circulated.

“The publication of the picture has deeply hurt our religious sentiments, and (the) publisher has violated the provisions of Constitution of India,” said a statement by the Indian Catholic Youth Movement in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya.

Christians make up 2.3 percent of India’s 1.1 billion-plus population. Hindus make up 80 percent, followed by Muslims at 13 percent, Sikhs at 1.8 percent and Buddhists at 0.8 percent.

India has witnessed sectarian-fueled violence and protests in the past, usually between Hindus and Muslims.

Editing by Matthias Williams and Miral Fahmy