ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly on Tuesday unanimously resolved to pursue the insertion of “strong safeguards” into the country’s blasphemy law so that no one suffers the fate of Mashal Khan again.

Apart from this, private members day in the lower house was marred yet again by deplorably low attendance, so much so that the government could not keep proceedings going following a walkout by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) over the disappearances of former president Asif Ali Zardari’s aides.

But the brief sitting was dominated by a long-winded speech by Leader of the Opposition Syed Khurshid Shah.

Wants ‘safeguards’ inserted in blasphemy law; opposition leader takes govt to task over ‘non-serious attitude’

Although he spoke for over half an hour, the opposition leader appeared to be stalling so that the house could pass the resolution condemning Mashal’s murder.

He drifted from issue to issue, condemning everything from the government’s non-serious attitude towards parliament to its failure to curtail loadshedding.

He also flayed the poor attendance records of cabinet ministers, saying that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz had removed all distinctions between dictatorship and democracy.

Recalling all the instances where the PPP had stood alongside the PML-N in “trying times” — which he said had earned the party a reputation for being a friendly opposition — Mr Shah decried the government for betraying the trust of the people.

“These one or two [ministers], what message are they sending?” Mr Shah asked the speaker at the outset of the session, regretting the sparse attendance on private members’ day.

“Over in the Senate, the chairman protested this behaviour and what did we see? All the ministers lined up to be counted,” he said, recalling Raza Rabbani’s outburst last week.

“Even the law minister isn’t here; who should we ask to vet this resolution?” he asked, brandishing a piece of paper bearing the opposition’s draft of a resolution condemning Mashal’s murder.

At this, Speaker Ayaz Sadiq interceded, saying that Barjees Tahir, minister for Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan affairs, could be given “acting charge” to examine the resolution.

But as Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sheikh Aftab Ahmed passed the resolution down the aisle to his colleague, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) Shireen Mazari dryly observed that the ministers were playing “pass the resolution”.

“You can even take credit for it. We are bending over backwards to give you credit,” the opposition leader observed sarcastically, as the draft resolution bounced back and forth between National Assembly staff and the few cabinet ministers in attendance.

The text eventually ended up in the hands of Mr Tahir and his cabinet colleagues Riaz Pirzada and Rana Tanveer. The speaker observed that the language of the resolution needed to be amended and asked the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s S.A. Iqbal Qadri, PTI’s Arif Alvi and others to weigh in as well.

After finalising the text, Defence Production Minister Rana Tanveer made the rounds of the aisles, obtaining signatures from all parties and eventually moving it.

“This house unanimously condemns the barbaric and cold-blooded murder of Mashal Khan and resolves to ensure that strong safeguards may be inserted into the blasphemy law to prevent its abuse through such atrocities... by mobs involved in such crimes,” the text of the resolution read.

It called on the federal and provincial governments to take strict action against the perpetrators and facilitators of this heinous crime, including those involved in hate speech and condemned all those who took the law in their own hands.

Following its adoption, Naeema Kishwer Khan of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) made an impassioned speech, calling on the provincial and federal governments to probe the role of the university administration in orchestrating Mashal’s murder.

She also called on the ministries of interior and information technology to put the cybercrime bill to use in apprehending those who were involved in running campaigns against the slain student, as well as those using social media platforms to radicalise and recruit youths for terrorist activities.

Recalling the cases of Saad Aziz and Naureen Laghari, PTI MNA Arif Alvi also called for the need to develop effective counter-narratives, in collaboration with religious scholars, to help curb radicalisation and recruitment of university students.

During speeches on the resolution, PPP’s Shahida Rehmani pointed out a lack of quorum. This led the speaker to briefly suspend proceedings while the government waited for more members to arrive.

But following the departure of several treasury and opposition MNAs, the speaker was forced to adjourn the sitting just over an hour after it commenced.

Interestingly, Capt Mohammad Safdar — the lawmaker who has been most vocal on the subject of blasphemy in recent months — was not in the house when the resolution was passed.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2017