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Blasphemy laws: a fact sheet

April 15, 2010

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THE draconian blasphemy laws enacted by the Ziaul Haq regime haunt the current democratic set-up as much as they do the Christian, Ahmadi and other minority communities of Pakistan.

Despite demands that these laws be totally repealed, the ultra-rightist lobby prevents the taking of any daring action that would attract the anger of the mullahs.

This situation must be understood in context of the fact that the enactment and acceptance of the blasphemy laws is a result of the manner in which the state of Pakistan has evolved. Their presence in the Pakistan Penal Code is rooted in the Indian Penal Code of 1860. In 1927, Section 295(a), which aimed to prevent tension between Hindus and Muslims, was added by the British to the Indian Penal Code and was with minor changes absorbed by Pakistani law after partition.

The contentious sections 295(b) and 295(c), introduced during the dictatorial Zia regime, aimed to protect the holy personages of Islam, the state religion. Section 295(c), which was added by an act of parliament in 1986, made it a criminal offence to use derogatory remarks with respect to the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and made the crime punishable with life imprisonment or death.

Between 1927 and 1986 there were less than 10 reported cases of blasphemy. From 1986 onwards, however, as many as 4,000 cases have been reported. Between 1988 and 2005, Pakistani authorities charged 647 people, of which 50 per cent were non-Muslim, with offences under the blasphemy laws. More than 20 people have been murdered for alleged blasphemy. Two-thirds of all the cases have occurred in Punjab.

Punjab is home to 81 per cent of the country's Christians. The seven districts that have had the most blasphemy cases are Lahore, Faisalabad, Sialkot, Kasur, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala and Toba Tek Singh. The total population of these districts is 25 million, of which five per cent is Christian. Conversely, 50 per cent of Pakistan's two million-strong Christian population lives in these seven districts, most of them in rural areas.

According to the 1998 census, the population of religious minorities in Pakistan is around six million or 3.7 per cent of the total population. Hindus and Christians constitute 83 per cent of these religious minorities, with the former outnumbering the latter by a small margin. Most of the Hindu population — 93 per cent — lives in Sindh.

An analysis of 361 cases of blasphemy offences registered by the police between 1986 and 2007 shows that as many as 49 per cent were registered against non-Muslims. The high rate of cases against non-Muslims should be contrasted with the fact that religious minorities comprise less than four per cent of the country's population.

Moreover, 26 per cent of the cases are against Ahmadis and 21 per cent against Christians, which is not in line with the ratios of these communities in terms of the total population (0.22 and 1.58 per cent respectively). In the 361 cases analysed, 761 people were nominated. And of these cases, over two-thirds were registered in Punjab, 15 per cent in Sindh and five per cent in the NWFP.

Of 35 districts in Punjab, the police in seven districts — all in central Punjab — registered 10 or more cases between 1986 and 2007. Forty-one per cent of all cases in terms of religion were registered. Nearly 65 per cent of the cases registered were against Christians, and Muslims were nominated in 43 per cent of the cases.

A total of 104 cases reached the higher courts between 1960 and 2007, out of which 91 cases were heard by the high courts in Pakistan and the AJK and the rest by the apex courts (Supreme Court and the Federal Sharia Court). Section 295(c) was invoked in as many as 41 cases.

A study of the cases suggests that the blasphemy laws are invoked either when the cases have been lodged merely to settle scores, or when the issue is that of expressing one's faith, or when the accused is known to be suffering from some sort of mental illness.

Laws introduced by Gen Ziaul Haq that discriminate against women and non-Muslims were largely opposed by women's rights organisations. Unfortunately, some in the Christian political leadership continued to shift positions and sometimes even came to the point of defending these laws publicly.

The factors that paved the way for the acceptance of the blasphemy laws and their endorsement by a particular segment of society are rooted in the evolution of the state of Pakistan and its constitutional development.

Due to the demographic changes that accompanied the partition of India in 1947, the areas that now comprise Pakistan changed from hosting a multi-religious society to a largely mono-religious one. Now, the social changes that are under way due to urbanisation are challenging the traditional class structure that, in earlier centuries, neatly defined the occupational distribution of classes and castes.

The resulting fissures are creating tension between the groups and the warring sections are in search of ideologies to justify their struggle. The state's religious aspirations are being used by adventurers to fight what is otherwise a war of economic aspirations.

Traditionally, minorities found refuge in liberal politics but lately liberal parties are losing the electoral battle in the decisive constituencies of Punjab. The demography of Christians is heavily skewed in Punjab, where the PPP — having failed to comprehend the evolving new realities — is showing steady signs of involuntary withdrawal. The ascension of the PML-N will have an adverse impact on the future of minorities in the province.

Given this balance sheet, the repeal of the blasphemy laws is possible only through mass awareness, organised campaigns and galvanising progressive religious leaders for the greater cause of the protection of humanity. The state needs to remain neutral and secular in its policies.

The writer is a Karachi-based researcher affiliated with an international NGO.

mansooraza@gmail.com