Blasphemy law and criminal inaction of the ruling elite
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse , September 14, 2012
Young but terrified Rimsha Masih is out. But her fate hangs in the balance because countless lunatics lurch around in the society who, despite the startling revelations, would still believe she committed a blasphemous. She is fated to live in fear for quite some time. And this throws up a challenge to all those believe in universally acknowledged democratic values. Top of all is the government and its affiliated institutions. But most of them seem to have taken a back seat on the blasphemy law. This has also encouraged individuals to abuse and misuse a law that has taken more Muslim lives than those of non-Muslims. It is about time that the government took serious measures to curb and discourage the abuse of blasphemy laws and also enact safeguards to protect the accused from mob justice.
Some of these demands resonated at the launch ceremony of a report “Blasphemy
Laws in Pakistan: Historical Overview”. The report has been produced by the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).
Alllama Tahir Asharafi, Chairman Ulema Council of Pakistan, said that Rimsha Masih case is a test case for the state and society in Pakistan to divorce its past of religious persecution related practices. He emphasized that there is need to shun the practice of taking the law into hands and prosecute the accused in blasphemy through mob justice. He observed that unfortunately blasphemy law is being abused by some powerful elements, both with religious and political backgrounds, for their vested interest. The latest case of blasphemy, he underlined, is aimed at vacating the Mehrabad area from Christian community to make a seminary over there.
“The government must come forward to safeguard the innocent people against powerful lobbies and groups in the country”, he stressed, underlining the need to initiate a healthy debate in the society to raise awareness among the people about blasphemy laws and to expose the people who are abusing it.
Mr. Peter Jacob, Executive Secretary at the National Commission for Justice of Pakistan, said that there is acute need to revisit and review the blasphemy laws. He asked the government to take courageous steps to make the law more elaborative and erect mechanisms to stop its abuse.
Rimsha case, as described by Allama Ashrafi, is indeed a test case for the government and all political forces of the country. They need to answer as to whether they would continue allowing and sanctifying vigilante justice in the name of a law that has been repeatedly misused even against Muslims. Do they allow and promote individual violent acts in the name of protecting the sanctity of Islam and its Prophet (PBUH)? Don’t the mainstream political parties have a collective responsibility to preempt a recurrence of “mob justice” or a potentially fatal First Information Report (FIR) without thorough investigation into the veracity of the charges or into the motives?
The challenge staring us all in the face is the government’s silence and indifference to the ever-growing number of illegal mosques and madaris on private and state lands, under-construction mosques in the green belt of F-10. F-11, encroachment on the state land in Islamabad and the occupation of a Pakistan Post plot in F-8/3 adjacent to a mosque. These are a few examples of how the ruling elite and the police are complicit in the illegal occupation and expansion of state lands.
Without putting legal checks with the certainty of consequences for misconduct or abuse of authority by an extremely corrupt, money-driven police, the rule of law, fair trial, and access to justice will remain elusive. Based on scores of experiences one can say that the police often act like prowling vultures – always on the lookout to mint money – both from the accuser and the accused. Often, they are complicit in fake or motivated cases which their officials then use to make money – at times even at the cost of their own colleagues. There is a direct correlation, at least partial if not entirely, between the vested interests’ propensity to go for fake/false cases against rivals and the readiness of the police to act hand in glove for financial gains. And this lies at the heart of the abuse /misuse and contravention of all laws in Pakistan.
From 1851 to 1947, when the British ruled this region and the hatred between the Muslims and Hindus was at its peak, there were only seven blasphemy-related incidents but during Zia’s rule along (1977-1988) alone, as many as 80 blasphemy cases were reported to the courts. As a whole, between 1987 and Aug. 2012 we have seen almost 247 blasphemy cases registered or raised, directly affecting lives of some 435 persons.
Also, figures suggest that since 1990, 52 people have been extra-judicially murdered, for being implicated in blasphemy charges. Among these 25 were Muslims, 15 Christians, five Ahmadis, one Budhist and one was a Hindu.
The known blasphemy cases in Pakistan show that from 1953 to July 2012, there were 434 offenders of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and among them 258 were Muslims (Sunni/Shia), 114 Christians, 57 Ahmadis, and 4 Hindus.
Blasphemy laws were first introduced in the Indian subcontinent by its British colonial rulers. Before that, orthodox Islamic jurisprudence was briefly enforced during Mughal rule on the subcontinent but history is silent if there were any blasphemy laws prevalent at that time.
Communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims before the partition of the subcontinent backed by political interests of different groups, including colonial rulers, were the main reason behind enactment of blasphemy laws.
As efforts by leaders like Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah failed to forge Hindu-Muslim unity against the colonial rule, tensions between religious communities began to rise. These tensions led to several communal riots in undivided India. Unscrupulous elements from both sides exploited the situation and left no stone unturned to create hatred against one another which also resulted in writing and publication of hate material by both sides.
The growing chasm between Hindus and Muslims suited the designs of colonial powers to perpetuate their rule and also provided them with an opportunity to enact blasphemy laws. The British government promulgated four laws in the undivided India to deal with the issues of blasphemy. Pakistan inherited these laws after it was carved out of India in 1947.
With the death of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali within a year of independence, the newly-founded nation lost its way how to move forward, resulting in political chaos and intrigue, accentuated eventually by the military interventions.
The ensuing tussle and tension between the political forces of East Pakistan and West Pakistan gave an opportunity to conservative religious lobby to sow the seeds of hatred among masses. There was tension between Hindus and Muslims in Eastern wing while in West Pakistan a forceful movement led by Majlis-e-Ahrar was launched against Ahmadis, a minority sect seen heretical by the mainstream Muslim communities.
The Ahmadis were ultimately declared non-Muslims officially by Pakistan in 1974 but the Islamization drive by former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq was the main reason that exacerbated communal and religious tensions in Pakistan. He introduced tough changes to blasphemy laws, some of them Ahmadi-specific, which were later exploited by the religious extremists. Ironically, blasphemy-related cases have seen a phenomenal increase after introduction of changes into blasphemy laws by the Zia regime.
Absence of democratic rule or little regard for due process of law has been the major contributing factor to the rise of communal tensions in Pakistan.
Coincidently or conspicuously the emergence of most of the dictatorship was always preceded by the communal and political unrest in the country. We also see that in comparison to Pakistan, blasphemy cases and laws in other three Muslim states Indonesia, Malaysia and Iran are much less and much more moderate.
Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the forthcoming book Osama: Pakistan Before and After, Roli Books, India