Aminah W. Chaudhry
Usually, laws against certain acts are created when things related to it start getting out of hand and there is a serious need to stop such acts. The blasphemy laws, however, are unique in the sense that for first time, a law was made and then later emerged the demand for its use and application.
Blasphemy laws were introduced to the Indian subcontinent during the colonial rule of the British in 1860. They were formed as provisions related to offences against religion. Four laws were established: Section 295 (intentional damage or defilement of a place or object of worship), 296 (disturbing religious ceremonies or gatherings), 297 (trespassing on places of burial), and 298 (intentionally insulting an individual’s religious feelings). The purpose of these laws, when they were introduced, was to maintain law and order within communities.
The British felt that this was the only way to curb communal tensions in India, where Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and other communities had been living together for centuries. Later, Section 295-A was included in the Indian Penal Code in 1927 after tensions began rising between Hindu and Muslim communities. The government introduced section 295-A in 1927 to criminalise “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious believers.”
During the debates on the wording of the new law, the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, highlighted that it was of paramount importance that “those who are engaged in historical works, those who are engaged in the ascertainment of truth and those who are engaged in bona fide and honest criticism of a religion shall be protected.” But the promulgation of the new law did not mark the end of the matter.
After Pakistan’s Independence in 1947, the issue of blasphemy laws came to light during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s reign as prime minister of Pakistan in the 1970s when in 1974, the court unanimously passed judgement declaring Ahmedis as non-Muslims. There was no opposition from any politician. This event had instigated the 1974 anti-Ahmedia riots which are considered to be the single largest killing and looting of minorities in Pakistan. With that decision, we get an idea that greater power is in the hands of state institutions which do not consider thinking critically about their own decisions till the harm has been done and often, not even after that. When Bhutto passed the law, a large number of student organisations, including National Students Federation (NSF) protested against Bhutto. These were the same students who had staunchly supported him in the beginning. Their support had been vital for Bhutto to come to power and now standing against him for capitulating to the pressure of other political parties and not acting according to his own beliefs for which he had won the support of the students.
It was during Zia’s regime when the blasphemy laws were made even more severe towards minorities. This was a period of “Islamization” during which major changes were made in Pakistan’s Penal Code. Five provisions related to blasphemy and other offences against religion were included such as section 295-C which called for death penalty or life-term imprisonment against parties guilty of committing blasphemy.
While the ostensible justification for these laws may have been to provide a legal avenue for the adjudication of religious conflict, the outcome has resulted in restricting pluralism, persecution of religious minorities, and muzzling freedom of expression and religious belief. Courts, too, have expressed concern on the misuse of blasphemy provisions. However, these laws do not just target non-Muslims, as nearly half of the victims of the blasphemy law are Muslims.
In addition to individuals prosecuted for blasphemy, as many as 53 others have been unlawfully killed merely on allegations of blasphemy since 1986; 24 reported and many more countless families have been threatened, attacked and forced to leave their homes; and lawyers and judges have been persecuted for performing their duties independently and impartially.
In 2017, a violent shook the youth of Pakistan to their core: a young student of journalism – Mashal Khan – was lynched and his body mutilated by his own classmates over a blasphemy allegation. An investigation found that he was innocent and the lynching was a premeditated murder by the student body and the university management after he had criticised the university.
Another tragic example is that of Junaid Hafeez, a former young lecturer at Bahauddin Zakria University, Multan who was accused of committing blasphemy seven years ago and ever since has been in solitary confinement.
Rashid Rehman, his first lawyer, stated that, “Defending a man accused of blasphemy in our society is like walking into jaws of death.” This proved to be quite true; Rehman was shot dead outside the court when Junaid’s trial began.
In 2008, Salman Taseer, a liberal politician serving as the governor of the Punjab was assassinated because he was talking about the law on blasphemy being misused. He talked with great concern and enthusiasm about the case of Aasia Bibi who had been condemned to death by a lower court, and even talked about looking for a presidential pardon for her. He fell silent when he was shot by his own security guard.
Later, Aasia Bibi was found not guilty and was freed, though the court was concerned about her security and she had to flee abroad.
There are 77 countries with blasphemy laws, including seven in Europe. But in Pakistan, the government is not acting decisively enough regarding a grave issue. The shape this law has taken is unrecognizable compared to the time it was created. Blasphemy law now act as became like fuel to a fire. The questing arises: do we really need such a colonial law in a country that was created in the name of religion and where 97 percent of its population is of Muslims? The solution does not lie in repealing the law, it is in creating a tolerant society just like the religion itself claims. No religion in the world supports extremism. Extremism exists only in the social fabric of the society.
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