No country for minorities: Legitimising murders in the name of blasphemy in Pakistan

The brutal killing of a Sri Lankan national, Priyantha Kumara Diyawadanage, is the latest in the long list of such socially acceptable and religiously legitimised crimes in Pakistan

Sanchita Bhattacharya December 06, 2021 16:41:19 IST
No country for minorities: Legitimising murders in the name of blasphemy in Pakistan

Representational image. Reuters

Pakistan, in recent times, has experienced numerous socio-political incidents of violence — strangely, all in the name of Islam. Life seems to have no value there, and an alleged ‘crime’ of tearing a poster with Prophet Mohammad’s name can culminate into a horrific death; the ‘accused’ is not only lynched, but also burnt alive by a mob of ‘believers’.

The brutal killing of a Sri Lankan national, Priyantha Kumara Diyawadanage, who worked in a factory as export manager, is the latest in the long list of such socially acceptable and religiously legitimised crimes. On 3 December, Priyantha was killed by an angry crowd, which included his fellow factory workers, in Wazirabad Road of Sialkot, Punjab. The murder occurred after a co-worker reportedly accused Priyantha of desecrating and removing posters from factory walls bearing the name of the Prophet.

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan are often abused to settle personal disputes and animosity, mostly related to property disputes. This particular case doesn’t seem to be different either. Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) president Mian Imran Akbar said that “personal vendetta” on part of some co-workers in the garb of alleged religious tilt led to the heinous incident.

Apparently, cadres of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) are suspected to be involved in Priyantha’s murder. Recently, the cadres of TLP also demanded the expulsion of the French Ambassador to Pakistan after French President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of a satirical magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet, an act considered blasphemous by Muslims. TLP since 2018 has been frequently challenging the Federal Government of Pakistan with its massive mass appeal among the people following the Barelvi sect of Islam in Pakistan.

According to the Annual Report of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), State of Human Rights in 2020, police data shows that at least 586 people were booked on charges of blasphemy in the year 2020, with the overwhelming majority from the province of Punjab. However, it has been estimated that in over three decades about 69 people lost their lives in cases related to accusations of blasphemy, mostly in mob violence. The brutality includes beating, lynching, shooting and burning of people.

Anyone can fall into the vicious trap of blasphemy: Politician, musician, teacher, journalist, etc. A few such infamous incidents occurring in the recent past are as follows:

  • On 29 July 2020, Tahir Naseem, a US citizen and accused of blasphemy, was shot dead inside a District Court in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the presence of security and the presiding judge. A video of Faisal Khan, the murderer in handcuffs, shouting angrily that his victim as an “enemy of Islam” was available in various social media platforms.
  • Mashal Khan, a student, was brutally lynched and killed by an angry mob, comprising his own hostel mates at Abdul Wali Khan University in the Mardan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on 13 April 2017, after being accused of blasphemy.

Under the Pakistan Penal Code, Clause 295-C, introduced by Gen Zia-ul-Haq, added by an Act of Parliament in 1986, it is a criminal offence to use derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet. In 1990, the punishment of life imprisonment under this law, which sought to penalise irreverence towards the Holy Quran and insulting the Prophet, was included. In 1992, the government went a step ahead and introduced the death penalty for a person held guilty of blasphemy under Blasphemy Clause 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. Crucially, this was introduced under the “democratic” regime of Nawaz Sharif. A special religious court ruled that the death penalty was mandatory, and the ruling became law when Pakistan's Senate unanimously declined to strike it down.

The clause reads: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine".

Interestingly, though there have been innumerable cases of blasphemy in Pakistan, till date, none of the accused were hanged following this draconian law. Rather, many were killed by angry mob and rioters, all in the name of preserving the sanctity of Islam. The danger related with blasphemy is the hasty punitive action taken by a disgruntled and well-orchestrated crowd, often consisting of neighbours, colleagues, friends, etc. The so-called accused is not handed over to the police; instead, the vicious mob decides his or her fate.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws, while purporting to protect Islam and the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, are imprecisely formulated and indiscriminately enforced by the police and judiciary in a way that amounts to the harassment of religious minorities. As the 2013 Asian Human Rights Commission Report noted, alleged incidents of blasphemy by religious minorities are often used to fuel mob violence, targeted sectarian killings, looting, burning of houses, burning of or attacks on places of worship, desecration of holy books, land grabs, etc.

More perilously, blasphemy is widely used as a tool in declaring various religious sects un-Islamic. Apart from personal animosity, people belonging to Hazara, Ahmadi, Shia, Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities are often declared wajib-ul-qatl (worthy of being murdered) because of their various alleged ‘blasphemous’ acts. The most famous is the case of Asia Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, a poor Christian woman who was falsely accused with blasphemy charges in 2009. A year later she became the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The death sentence was quelled by the Supreme Court in 2018. She now resides in Canada as she is still wajib-ul-qatl in Pakistan.

Even prominent political figures in Pakistan have not been spared, as was evident in the case of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, and also for Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minority Affairs. Both were brutally murdered in separate incidents in the year 2011 for questioning violence linked to allegations of blasphemy. Taseer was killed by one of his bodyguards, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who was enraged by the Governor's efforts to secure marginal amendments to the Blasphemy Law, as also his advocacy of Asia Bibi, Bhatti was killed by unidentified terrorists who fired 30 bullets at him and managed to escape.

The dangers of the blasphemy law are that related “crimes” require no proof of intent or evidence to be presented after allegations are made and does not include any penalty for false allegations. Moreover, most of those who are accused in blasphemy crimes in Pakistan spend years in prison, waiting for a hearing. The ban on such laws is impossible because of fear of mass outrage and violent legacy of religious groups, working at a grassroots level. The inefficiency of political set-up in Pakistan has created a huge void, unfortunately, filled by various religious groupings, often having a penchant for violence.

The rampant killing in the name of blasphemy is ruining Pakistani society from within, giving validity to monstrous crime and human rights violations in a country that is ranked 158 out of 161 countries in the 2021 Global Peace Index. The climate of hatred and apathy in the system, often reinforced by state policy and law, aggravates violence in all possible forms, including extremism, sectarian killing, terrorism, target killing, violence against women, the killing of religious minorities and arbitrary blasphemy-related crime.

The writer is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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