On February 11, 2023, a man was lynched in Nankana Sahib by a violent mob over allegations of blasphemy. The frequency of mob attacks and killings has been steadily increasing in Pakistan — especially in Punjab.
According to a 2022 study by the Centre for Research & Security Studies, between 1947 and 2021, 89 people were killed for allegedly committing blasphemy. There were roughly 1,500 accusations and cases during this period. More than 70 percent of these were in Punjab.
Incidents of blasphemy accusations and killings in other provinces are far lower. Sindh comes a distant second with 173 accusations and nine killings, followed by Islamabad with 55 accusations and two killings. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has recorded 33 accusations and six killings. Balochistan, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan have the lowest numbers. There have been no killings in the latter two regions and just one in Balochistan.
From 1948 till 1985, just 11 cases of blasphemy were recorded in the country and three killings. This was when the blasphemy laws of the country did not carry the death sentence. From the period when the death sentence was added in 1986, the number of cases went up by 1,300 percent.
The rhetoric leading up to Partition, the violence which followed and the subsequent exploitation of religious sentiments has led to Punjab becoming the epicentre of blasphemy-related violence in Pakistan
But why has Punjab been the hotbed of blasphemy-related cases, violence and deaths? Even during the period when the blasphemy laws were much lighter, there were two killings here. Both the victims belonged to the Ahmadiyya community.
Punjab has become the epicentre of blasphemy-related violence. Political scientists Dr Muhammad Waseem and Christophe Jaffrelot have pondered whether this is in any way linked to the lingering impact of the vicious ‘communal violence’ which erupted in Punjab during the partition of India in 1947. The region was the scene of widespread riots and clashes between Muslims on the one side and Hindus and Sikhs on the other. Thousands were killed.
Many prominent radical Hindu nationalist and Islamist organisations were headquartered in Punjab. Apart from being involved in violence against each other, these outfits were also brawling with mainstream political parties such as Jawaharlal Nehru’s Indian National Congress and Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s All India Muslim League (AIML).
The Hindu nationalists wanted a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu State) which they believed the ‘secular’ Congress was unwilling to create. The radical Islamists, on the other hand, attacked the AIML as being a ‘secular’ party, incapable of creating an Islamic State. Islamist organisations in the Punjab, such as the Majlis-i-Ahrar, also accused the League of having ‘deviant Muslims’ (ie Shia and the Ahmadiyya) in its ranks.
To address the accusations aimed at it by the Islamists in Punjab, the League was compelled to alter its message. In other Muslim-majority regions of India, such as East Bengal and Sindh, and in regions where the Muslims were in a minority, the League posited a Muslim nationalism that was territorial. The party highlighted this nationalism’s economic and political benefits. But in Punjab, despite the fact that 51 percent of the population was Muslim, the League’s message was failing to gain much traction.
So, during the 1946 provincial elections in British India, the League had to engage with certain powerful land-owning pirs (spiritual guides) and ulema in Punjab. To rouse the Muslims of the province, especially in the rural areas, the pirs and the ulema were allowed by the party to drift away from the League’s nationalist manifesto and add a radical dimension to its message.
They began to frame the ‘Westernised’ constitutionalist Jinnah as an ideologue who was striving to create a ‘new Madinah’ and/or an Islamic state that would be navigated by pious men and Shariah laws. Nothing of the sort happened, of course, after Jinnah succeeded in creating Pakistan. But a large portion of Punjab’s Muslim population was thoroughly radicalised.
Partition had triggered unprecedented violence in Punjab. When the western part of the province became part of Pakistan, the Muslims here became an overwhelming majority. The number of Hindus and Sikhs dwindled. With these gone, the residue of communal violence, and the fires lit by lofty Islamist rhetoric in 1946, rebounded directly towards the Ahmadiyya. There is, thus, nothing surprising about the fact that the two violent anti-Ahmadiyya movements (1953 and 1974) were both centred in Punjab.
After imploding during the two anti-Ahmadiyya movements, the besieged mindset that emerged in Punjab during the Partition violence then diverted itself towards alleged blasphemers, especially after 1986.
The province also has one of the largest populations of Barelvi Sunni Muslims in the country. This Sunni sub-sect felt alienated and threatened when the ‘Islamisation’ policies of the Gen Ziaul Haq dictatorship were perceived to have benefitted the rival Deobandi sub-sect.
As a response, radical Barelvi leaders began to adopt the ‘defence’ of the fortified blasphemy laws as their main calling. There was especially a tenfold spike in incidents of blasphemy-related violence and deaths in Punjab after 2011 — the year when a member of a Barelvi evangelical outfit assassinated the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. The killer had accused him of criticising the blasphemy laws.
One of the reasons behind the spike was also that the assassin was hailed as a ‘hero’ by many. He was then unabashedly praised by many prominent politicians of Punjab. Taseer was murdered in January 2011; 110 more cases and accusations of blasphemy were recorded during the same year in the province. These increased to 263 in 2014. 2020 witnessed another spike with 231 cases.
So what’s the way out? Some concerned commentators have suggested that, since no state institution or government is willing to undo the 1986 clause in the blasphemy laws, one can at least ‘balance’ the laws by adding equally damning punishments for those concocting false accusations of blasphemy.
But Islamist parties refuse to even discuss this. These laws have continued to normalise blasphemy-related violence. Rampaging mobs actually believe they are doing something that is not only Divinely ordained, but also entirely lawful.
This nature of violence is comparatively quite low in other provinces. So, one can ask, why do Sindh, KP and Balochistan have to be impacted by the fallout from a problem that is largely centred in Punjab? Punjab has to provide the solution. But all it has done so far is further compound the problem.
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 19th, 2023