Published December 12, 2021
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

A frantic debate erupted on social and mainstream media in Pakistan, when, on December 4, a mob killed the Sri Lankan manager of a factory in Narowal. The man was accused of committing blasphemy by some workers when he asked them to remove posters of the radical Sunni Barelvi party, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), from the premises of the factory.

Formed in 2015, the TLP’s ‘manifesto’ is almost entirely based on protecting the country’s blasphemy laws. The aforementioned debate that emerged, largely revolved around whether the disconcerting increase in mob violence is the result of a controversial 1986 section in the country’s blasphemy laws.

In 1860, the British colonial government in India introduced a law which declared that it was “a crime to disturb a religious assembly, trespass on burial grounds, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or defile a place or an object of worship.” Violation of this law was punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

Read: It is indeed a day of shame for Pakistan

In 1927, a ‘section 295A’ was added to this law “to prevent hate speech that insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of any class of citizen with deliberate and malicious intention to outrage their religious feelings.” The section prescribed a 3-year jail sentence, or a fine, or both.

It was triggered by an event in which a Hindu author had published a book that had caused outrage among Muslims. The section was added to the 1860 law because of pressure from the Muslim religious leadership, when the Lahore High Court could not find any grounds to prosecute the publisher according to the 1860 law.

Are Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, specifically Section 295-C that prescribes the death penalty, the cause of the disconcerting rise in incidences of mob violence in the country?

After the section was finally introduced, a Muslim member of the Imperial Legislative Assembly, T.A.K Sherwani, expressed his apprehension that “it might contribute to discord within the Muslim community, among Shias, Sunnis and Ahmadis.” This statement, made 94 years ago, constituted remarkable foresight, as we shall see. The publisher of the offensive book was murdered by a Muslim, two years after section 295A was introduced.

After the departure of the British in 1947, and the creation of India and Pakistan, both the new-born countries adopted the 1927 laws as is. But in Pakistan, between 1980 and 1986, during the Islamist military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq, additional sections in the blasphemy laws began to be added. In 1982, an article was added to the law (295B) that prescribed life imprisonment for defiling the Quran.

In May 1986, the late progressive lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir delivered a speech at a seminar hosted by the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). WAF was a vehement critic of Zia’s so-called ‘Islamisation policies,’ often lambasting them for being ‘anti-women’ and draconian. In her speech, Jahangir castigated the dictatorship for politicising the ulema. She added that, since there was no church in Islam, a Muslim did not need a mediator in the shape of a cleric or religious leader to mediate between a man/woman and God.

Two members of the National Assembly (NA), Nisar Fatima and Liaquat Baloch, took offence at Jahangir’s speech and claimed it was an attack on Islam and its leading holy personages. Baloch was a member of the Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and Fatima was a former activist of JI’s student-wing. The NA had come into being after the 1985 general elections that anti-Zia parties had boycotted. This meant it was packed with pro-Zia groups.

Fatima tried to move a privilege motion demanding a ban on WAF. She also demanded action against Jahangir. The NA Speaker,, Hamid Nasir Chattha, declared the motion out of order because, if Jahangir had committed the crime of blasphemy, then there was already section 295 to address the offence. Chattha said the NA was not the place to hold a trial.

Another member of the NA, Shah Baleeghuddin, complained that section 295A carried just a 3-year jail sentence for a “hideous crime” such as blasphemy. Maulana Gohar Rehman, another member of the NA, suggested that the punishment for blasphemy should be death. Roused by the charged ‘debate’, Fatima demanded that a law prescribing the death penalty for blasphemy be passed immediately. She warned that all of them “risked divine displeasure if they hesitated.”

Just two members of the assembly, Khan Muhammad Arif Khan and M. Hamza, advised caution. But their apprehensions were sidelined. Fatima rose up to declare that Jahangir was an atheist and had married an Ahmadi. A week later, Liaquat Baloch authored a bill that prescribed the death sentence. At the same time, Zia’s hand-picked government of PM Muhammad Khan Junejo, which was trying to neutralise the more ‘emotional’ members of NA, tabled its own bill. It included the provision of life imprisonment, but not the death penalty.

When a ‘compromise’ was reached between the two groups, it was decided that the bill would include the death penalty as well as life imprisonment. Hamza again advised caution and demanded a wider public debate. Fatima responded by saying that the issue required no public debate because the ulema in the assembly were on the same page.

The addition of section 295C to the penal code, prescribing death sentence and/or life imprisonment, was passed and became law after Zia’s approval on October 5, 1986. In 1990, the provision of life imprisonment was removed on the instructions of the Federal Shariat Court. It could have been challenged, but wasn’t, by the first Nawaz Sharif regime.

The murder of the Hindu publisher in 1929 had taken place two years after section 295A was approved, precisely to prevent religious violence. The section’s failure to achieve this couldn’t have been starker. With this we go back to the question: does section 295C deter religious violence or aid it?

The answer is in the data. According to a 2017 report by the Centre of Social Justice, there were just 14 people booked for blasphemy in Pakistan from 1947 till the introduction of 295C in 1986. No major incidences of mob lynchings, because of alleged blasphemy, were reported.

Since 1986, however, over 1,500 people have been booked and over 70 have been killed by mobs and ‘vigilantes’ for allegedly committing blasphemy. What’s more, a majority of the people booked for alleged blasphemy are Muslims (both Sunni and Shia). Second in percentage are the Ahmadiyya, followed by Christians and Hindus.

This should be more than enough to answer the question.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 12th, 2021



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