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Rare models for harmony

September 11, 2012

“[THE] case is a clear reflection of growing tolerance and harmony in society…”

Someone too overwhelmed by the moment? Perhaps. Yet, something really remarkable has indeed taken place. The bail granted to the young girl in the blasphemy case has set a precedent, and calls for a fair investigation following her arrest on Aug 16 have created an example that needs to be followed all over in the interest of justice.

Until now, the concerned voices had been restricted to the rights groups — their voices frequently drowned out by the passion that a blasphemy accusation generates.

The latest accused in Islamabad by contrast found an environment which at least offered her hope for what others have routinely been denied: an investigation beyond the complainant’s version. These conditions threw up the witnesses who brought her accuser under suspicion.

The proximity to the seat of power was a factor — and the timing could have been crucial too. As the thinking goes, the grassroots is a country that exists far away from the dictates of the law and the ideology of a fair probe.

Left on their own, the police can be easily co-opted by the frenzied mobs and once the prosecution has made the initial entries, a re-investigation invites an outpouring of religious sentiment.

The tendency of the probing apparatus to be swept away by local emotions led a treasury member of the National Assembly in 2010 to say the blasphemy cases were best left to the higher courts. This was a cutting comment on the lack of the state’s writ at the level where the local administration worked — at a distance from the central authority.

The underlying assertion was that on a higher level and removed from the charged locale, investigation of and adjudication on blasphemy cases would be easier.

As it turned out, like the governments before it, the present set-up also found the topic too hot. The idea of removing the sensitive blasphemy case from its immediate environment was dropped before it could take off. What followed instead was a series of blasphemy cases, pursued with vigour and drawing ever louder local and international calls for protection against those trying to use the law to pursue their petty personal interests.

This international attention has been significant since the local responses to these cases have to be within the allowed space. The importance of this foreign presence must have been heightened at a time when general elections were anticipated and the power players were looking for international approval of their candidacy. The situation required these candidates to behave.

It seemed that at the confluence of so many streams of power and authority Islamabad was able to have a bearing on the proceedings. In comparison to many others faced with similar circumstances in the past, the youngster had a more instant connection with those who could ensure a fairer probe.

The police, overlooked directly by the government from its seat in the capital, for once appeared to function unaffected by the murderous calls raised by the complainants. The state was closely watched by the influential diplomats desperate for Pakistan to show some signs of creating a fair society for all to live in.

It is difficult to say whether the international front was enough for another important player — the media — to be a little more circumspect. Given the change in tones and faces, it is, however, clear that the media is itself in the process of fine-tuning its act behind which the ‘coming’ general election could be a big reason.

It wasn’t as if Tahir Ashrafi had spoken about the law for the first time. The religious leader had been vocal in expressing similar views around the time governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his guard. As recently as last month, Mr Ashrafi had sided with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s decision to celebrate Eid a day earlier than the rest of the country.

These non-traditional positions had won him some coverage, but that was nothing in comparison to how his stance was highlighted in the media this time round. He really made an impact with his demand for a fair trial for the accused and for the complainant to be booked if the allegations turned out to be false. Another attempt to ease the situation was reportedly made by a local pir.

The state and its law-enforcers, the media, public representatives, civil society, crucially including the religious leaders who follow a softer version of religion … these are the elements most sought in developing a society that can truly be complimented for its harmony. The interfaith effort that has been going on amid so much scepticism was also an important factor in the case.

This combine needs to be institutionalised and replicated. Another example of just how helpful some earnest government intervention can be was largely hidden — in Lahore — just when the Islamabad case was in the limelight. Here also a most visible and central role was played by the police, who everyone knows have to be always prodded by the authorities watching over them. All the police require is an authority that is alert and willing.

The Punjab capital has allowed many sensitive issues involving allegations of persecution of Christians to simmer. For example, the media has sporadically taken up instances of forced evictions from prime land claimed to be owned by a church.

But when the prolonged celebrations over a conversion to Islam threatened to take the shape of a communal clash in the city in late August, the provincial government finally swung into action with a clear aim. PML-N lawmakers belonging to the two communities were roped in and with the police playing the moderator, a clash was averted and a preventive formula created for everyone to follow.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.