The Blasphemy law was introduced in 1860 by the British Government. It prohibited damaging or defiling a place of worship or a sacred object. Violators could receive imprisonment up to two years, or fine or both. Sixty seven years later, in 1927, Section 295-A was added to stop deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. Any one guilty of doing so could now be punished with imprisonment of up to ten years or fine or both.
Zia ul Haq, an expert at using religion as an instrument of power, introduced Section 295-B in 1982. It states that “Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract there from or uses it in any derogatory manner for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.” This law remained conspicuously silent about the desecration of Holy Books of other religions.
In 1986, Zia went one step further to add 295-C to the already long list of Blasphemy laws. 295-C stipulated that “ Who ever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation directly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable for fine.” This was later amended by the judgment of the Federal Shariat Court, making the death penalty mandatory on conviction for the offence of desecrating the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). A noteworthy aspect of this section is the absence of the expression wilfully or intentionally in the text of the law.
While adequately protecting the Muslim sentiment, these laws fail to do the same for members of other faiths. Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus are often at the receiving end of the blasphemy laws. For 126 years, from 1860 till 1986, only 14 cases pertaining to blasphemy were reported. Regretfully the number of such cases between 1986 to 2014 jumped to 1300. One wonders as to what made our society so insane in the last 27 years so as to cause a nearly 100 times increase in blasphemy incidents.
Once charged with blasphemy, the accused are often severely tortured and even killed by mobs and individuals. The families of the accused have to leave their homes, go in hiding and often seek refuge in foreign lands. Their places of worship, houses and localities are attacked, burned and destroyed while the police and the government look the other way.
Many hoped that Pervez Musharaf of ‘enlightened moderation’ fame, would amend these laws to prevent their misuse. Alas, that was not to happen. Hopes were then pinned on the democratic government of PPP. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani however closed the chapter by formally declaring that there would be no amendments to the blasphemy law. The incumbent PML-N is not likely to touch this issue with a long pole.
Personal vendetta, property disputes and instigated emotions often lead to leveling of false blasphemy charges. Aasia Bibi is a recent case in point. The doors to her continued existence were closed by the Lahore High Court on October 16, 2014. The High Court upheld the death sentence awarded by a Session’s court in 2010. A mother of five, her coworkers had accused her of drinking the same water as them and verbally challenging their faith. Confined in her dingy death cell, her only hope now resides at the door steps of the Supreme Court.
Skewed in favour of the rich and powerful, our dysfunctional legal system offers very little to the common citizens and even lesser to the minorities of Pakistan. A number of immediate steps could however be taken to change the conditions under which justice is currently administered. The blasphemy cases could be held in camera. This will ensure greater safety for all parties. Only the judges, the accused, the witnesses and the lawyers ought to be allowed during the proceedings. Witness protection programs could be rigidly enforced to encourage people to give evidence more freely.
But all these are first-aid measures and will not make the problem go away. People will continue to be lynched or sentenced to death. Minorities will continue to be on the run and Pakistan will continue to be viewed as a wretched and loathsome state. The only solution lies in improving the laws that are currently loaded against the helpless minorities. The state has gone beyond its mandate in creating laws based on its own inadequate perception of religion, thus creating conflict and hatred among various sections of society. Our best option is to go back to August 11, 1947 and implement the words of someone whose picture we love to hang in every office. “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”