Offences against religion

Published March 29, 2023
The writer is a barrister.
The writer is a barrister.

AS has become our annual custom, yet another person accused of blasphemy was recently lynched; accosted by a deranged mob in Nankana Sahib, which dragged him out of a police station, pummelled the life out of him, and then attempted to set his body on fire before law enforcers found the guts to intervene.

Last year, a teacher in D.I. Khan was fatally stabbed by her students, a handicapped man was forcibly drowned in Ghotki, and a person, reportedly with a mental illness, was snatched from police custody, hung by his neck to a tree, and stoned to death in Khanewal. All on similar suspicions. This is a sign: our brutalisation as a society is nearing completion.

It is a pity that the only time we think it necessary (or perhaps possible) to turn our attention to the prickly issue of blasphemy is whenever some hapless soul or another has found themselves killed in the most monstrous of manners — axed, shot, set ablaze, or cooked inside a brick kiln.

By now, our response to these macabre instances has been finessed, standardised almost: the act itself is censured to varying degrees, a round of generalised condemnation follows, similar occurrences in the past are revisited, the word ‘reform’ is whispered (lest it ignite more trouble), and then we continue to bear witness to such tragedies, even as they recur with an astonishing increase in frequency.

A study conducted by CRSS sheds shocking light on the phenomenon. From 1947 to 1990, only three people were killed in blasphemy-related vigilantism. By 2021, this figure had jumped to 89. That is an increase of 2,866 per cent. Just as disquieting is the rise in the number of criminal complaints being processed. Till 1990, only 20 cases were registered, but by 2021, this number had leapfrogged to 701.

That represents an increase of 3,405pc. In tandem has been an escalation in accusations, from a measly 17 till 1990, to a whopping 1,306 by 2021 — an increase of 7,528pc. This is staggering data, and should be a cause for deep unease for anyone who cares for the sanity of this polity.

What could cause such a sudden explosion of fiery allegations and fanatical murders? There are reasons aplenty, the most obvious being this: the 1990s were preceded immediately by the Zia regime and its politically coloured Islamisation project, which ushered in a sea change throughout our legal landscape (and hence, our social fabric).

The most drastic alterations occurred in criminal law, that deeply sensitive realm where people are disciplined and punished, and there, an attempt was made to implant an ultraorthodox understanding of the Islamic concept of ‘hudood’ — a long-time demand of religious parties, some of whom played a key part in sculpting its ultimate façade.

This is a sign: our brutalisation as a society is nearing completion.

Blasphemy laws as we know them today are a collection of crimes found in a specific chapter of our Penal Code devoted to ‘offences against religion’. Before the programme went into full swing, it used to have a handful of provisions that criminalised things like injuring or defiling a place of worship, disturbing a religious assembly, trespassing on burial grounds, and insulting the religion or religious beliefs of any class (this last one is Section 295A, enacted in 1927 after the colonial administration failed to convict Hindu publisher Rajpal — killed shortly after by a young man named Ilmuddin in 1929, who has since achieved ‘sainthood’ status).

Sentences under these provisions were comparatively lax, ranging from a maximum of one to two years of imprisonment, or a fine, or a combo of the two. None of these offences were religion-specific. They sought to control communal tensions by safeguarding religious sentiments, and the protection they offered extended, at least in principle, to every religion. Zia and his henchmen changed all this.

Section 295A was strengthened with 10 years imprisonment. Additional crimes were introduced; this time, they were all specific to Islam. Desecrating the Quran became punishable by life imprisonment. Insulting the Prophet (PBUH) by life or death (the possibility of a life sentence was ruled out by the Federal Shariat Court in 1990 as ‘repugnant to Islam’).

Also added was a provision (subject to three years’ max) that criminalised disparaging the sahaaba (the National Assembly lately passed a bill proposing to extend this to 10 years), along with two other offences (of equal severity) that were tailored to ensure that Ahmadi citizens would not be able to “pose” as “Muslims”, or “propagate” their version of faith, or “in any manner whatsoever [outrage] the religious feelings of Muslims” (the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of these provisions in 1993, mostly on the rationale that since Islam and its epithets were the intellectual property of Muslims, any public display by an Ahmadi of the same could cause offence to the community, spark an issue of public order, and could therefore, reasonably, be curtailed).

And so, Pakistan took its place amongst a handful of countries with the harshest (and most discriminatory) blasphemy laws in the world. If this was intended to deter blasphemers, it has done the reverse. The issue has detonated into mind-numbing violence, especially in the last decade. Pinning all the blame on Zia, however, is a bit disingenuous.

Islamisation of some form or the other is the logical conclusion of a theologically constrained Constitution that demands the application of “the Injunctions of Islam”. Moreover, 30 years have passed since, and by now, these laws have acquired an implicit democratic character (assuming one did not pre-exist). So staunch is their support, in fact, that a sizeable demographic deems them ‘untouchable’, effectively conflating calls for their reformation with heresy.

This attitude, in an age where information is being cross-pollinated across cyberspace at hyperspeed, foreshadows disaster. Laws enacted through legislative assemblies are human products and must be kept under supervision — to be studied for their effects, examined for their continued suitability, and, should need ever arise, to be altered or removed, especially when their retention proves deleterious to public interest.

To suggest otherwise is to compel ourselves to stagnation, and with polarisation and radicalisation ascending with such velocity, we risk sinking further and further into this abyss, weighed down by the incongruities of our own conscience.

The writer is a barrister.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2023

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