India’s British rulers first codified offences against religion in 1860, which were then expanded in 1927. When Pakistan become a separate country, it inherited these laws; and decided to keep them. In the 1980s, Zia ul Haq added more clauses to this ridiculous and frankly unnecessary law.
Over the years, this law been used to put people in jail (Aasia Bibi has now been acquitted by a Pakistani court after being in jail for over seven years, with a death sentence hanging over her head). The mere concept of blasphemy has been used to murder people (Salman Taseer, who was trying to help Aasia Bibi, was murdered by his own security guard), settle personal scores (Mashal Khan was murdered by a group of people because he was speaking against his University’s administration), and seek revenge. General vigilante justice has become the norm. A Christian couple was burned alive in 2014 by a mob of 1200 people when they were accused of blasphemy.
In July 2018, once again blasphemy was used against Sindhi artist Qutub Rind. Qutub had rented a flat in Lahore. There was a disagreement with the landlord regarding rent and, lo and behold, blasphemy allegations were bandied about. Rind was tortured and murdered.
Since 1990, saviours of the religion have been accused of killing at least 65 people. And not a single government — military or civilian — has been able to do away with this law. Some may have tried to make tiny adjustments but had to backtrack due to the same ever-ready frenzied mobs.
Things are likely to get worse. Imran Khan, the freshly-minted prime Minister of Pakistan based his campaign on over-emphasis of creating an Islamic Welfare State, supporting blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws. Khan’s tenure has begun with the appointment of a supporter of the killer of Salman Taseer as the Information Minister of Punjab.
Pakistan continues to give succour to religious hysteria; its military is known for harbouring extremists as strategic assets and now, in their infinite wisdom, they have started mainstreaming fundamentalist organisations. The result is that these groups hold sway over large areas of the country and have tens of thousands of followers. They are able to bring these same followers out on the street at a moment’s notice and thus exert a lot of influence over the country’s political and governance spheres.
Just this past week one of the largest pro-blasphemy law parties, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), stoked religious hysteria over a forthcoming cartoon contest in the Netherlands. Mobs came out, death threats were issued and the contest has now been cancelled.
Geert Wilders, the propagator of this contest is himself a right-wing nut-job, whose sole intention was to be provocative. However, that is not the point here. The issue remains that Pakistan’s population is more and more beset with worrying about saving Islam than anything else.
In a country where almost all development indices are at the lowest levels, this incessant clarion call of Islam and blasphemy as the prime requirement of the population is distressing and does not bode well for the future.
Khan is a new to this political game; he is going to test the waters very gently. There is no expectation that he will do away with the blasphemy laws and/or make any strides towards a more liberal and free society. I predict that more freedoms will be curtailed and there will be more hysteria over Islam. And, unfortunately, there will be more Mashal Khans and Qutub Rinds.
(Published in Sedaa – Our Voices)