This week, Rashid Rehman joined the ranks of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. A brave and courageous man, Rehman was the only lawyer in south Punjab brave enough to defend Junaid Hafeez, a visiting professor at Bahauddin Zakriya University now called a blasphemy accused. And he was murdered for it.
Rehman’s legacy was larger than life: nephew to famed activist IA Rehman, son of a former ambassador Ashfaq Ahmed Khan, Rehman himself has been the Human Rights Commission Pakistan south Punjab coordinator since 1987 – only three years after he started his practice as a lawyer. Rehman has since been the defence lawyer for 228 blasphemy cases and 6,220 human rights cases including Mukhtaran Mai’s case. Rehman will be remembered, there is no doubt of that, a symbol of what it means to stand for individual beliefs in a country that has surely been abandoned by God.
There is a debate within legal cadres that seeks to determine whether Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are the root of these forms of violence. Do we blame the law or do we blame its misuse by the society?
The blasphemy law Section 295- A (insulting religion or religious beliefs) was introduced to the Indian Penal Code of 1860 in 1927 to prevent Hindu-Muslim rioting. This was a preemptive law with the intent to prevent violent acts by religious groups wherein ideological differences between religions play out in violent ways. Between 1927 and 1986 there were less than 10 reported cases of blasphemy. Furthermore, the maximum punishment awarded to the accused in any category of religious offences was imprisonment of maximum two years. The law was effective in as much that it recognised the violent repercussions of religious offences, and treated the offences as a precursor to violent acts. The punishment did not seek to castigate the accused for not ascribing to certain set of faiths, but to discipline and sensitize the perpetrator towards the gravity of his/her actions vis-à-vis potential for chaotic communal reactions.
The Indian Penal Code was amended to the Pakistan Penal Code after the partition. As the state took on theocratic colours, the law suddenly became easier to manipulate. After Ziaul Haq’s draconian 295-B and 295-C Sections (defiling Holy Quran and insulting Prophet Muhammad) were added to the law, the nature of the law, previously meant to prevent communal violence, suddenly took on a whole new perspective with enormous potential for misuse.
According to the Muhammad Mahboob vs State, (2002) 54 P.L.D, ever since the law became more stringent, there has been an increase in the number of registration of blasphemy cases. Three cases were reported between the period 1979 and 1986. Forty-four cases were registered between 1987 and 1999. In 2000 alone, fifty-two cases were registered … this shows that the law was being abused…to settle…scores.
According to the Dawn news article, the current score stands at 4,000. The exponential increase is evidence of clear intent of malice. Considering that minorities constitute 3.7% of Pakistan’s population, 50% of the cases were registered against non-Muslims.
Sections 295-B and C wrap up human fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution in a fascist garb that offers no security to the accused, or in Rehman’s case, anyone associated with the accused. Siddique and Zahra state that the Constitutional clause on freedom of speech is held superseded by these restrictive laws. The supremacy of religiously motivated laws over human fundamental laws points towards withering humanism in society. At the same time, the laws also allow for exercise of fascist supremacy over those the law does not protect.
Dawood I Ahmed raises an interesting question: Was Salman Taseer’s killer motivated to pull the trigger because of a law? He argues that the law never sought to oppress, rather to preempt oppression. The root of communal violence in matters of blasphemy, Ahmed argues, is social malaise. Instead of myopically focusing on amending the blasphemy law, he says, pressure and activist groups should be focusing on changing social norms through more subtle and effective forums — the media, schools, mosques and so forth.
Blasphemy is a victimless crime. In the case of Joseph Colony, it took one supposed offensive thought, to set fire to the homes of over 200 families. The perpetrators were many, only 83 were named and set free on bail within days. Last week the Lahore High Court turned down the Prosecution Department’s request to overturn their bails as they had been accused of terrorism. The LHC dismissed the request. It observed that they had been granted bail due to lack of evidence. None of the victims were willing to come forward to testify against them out of fear and there was nothing to tie those men with the incident, expect for the complainants’ word. Using this line of reasoning, it is baffling to see how then the sessions court could sentence Sawan Masih to death. The hundreds of victims of the torching incident who are without justice are trying left right and centre to leave the country. According to NGO details, even families associated with the victims have been trying to flee the country. Vulnerable communities flee the blasphemy monster that could arise at any whim, any fancy, of anyone they might hold a grudge with.
These are dangerous times. The argument that misuse of a law doesn’t make it bad in itself is flawed because of the license of abuse it offers. From being a preventative law to being a tool for oppression, Sections 295 A, B and C reveal the inherent fascism inherent in the very structure we call state.
The government cannot do much in this case. Already it has been cowed into removing the option of a military offensive against terrorists who have bled this country for over a decade and a half. With allegations of close ties with militant organisations, it should come as no surprise that the government has offered no security, constitutional or physical, to vulnerable groups.
Rehman was but one man trying to staunch a gaping wound this country has been bleeding from since the 1980s. There is no hope that his killers will be caught. The AFP reported that lawyers had gone on a strike on Thursday in protest against the murder of their colleague. Local news reports however reveal that the ‘protest’ was meagre. There were few black coats in the courts mourning and more at home lauding the vigilantes who had finally removed the man who defended the weak.
There is no room for respite in a country governed by the law of the jungle. But this needs to change on priority. Provincial governments must take on the mantle of reasoning with the masses through outreach programmes, similar to those conducted for polio vaccination. Political and religious parties must use their clout in redefining the definition of blasphemy and bringing about a shift towards humanism. Ingersoll’s lines could be helpful in this regard:
What is real blasphemy?
To live on the unpaid labor of other men — that is blasphemy.
To enslave your fellow-man, to put chains upon his body — that is blasphemy.
To enslave the minds of men, to put manacles upon the brain, padlocks upon the lips — that is blasphemy.
To deny what you believe to be true, to admit to be true what you believe to be a lie — that is blasphemy.
To strike the weak and unprotected, in order that you may gain the applause of the ignorant and superstitious mob — that is blasphemy.
To persecute the intelligent few, at the command of the ignorant many — that is blasphemy.
To forge chains, to build dungeons, for your honest fellow-men — that is blasphemy.
To pollute the souls of children with the dogma of eternal pain — that is blasphemy.
To violate your conscience — that is blasphemy.
The jury that gives an unjust verdict, and the judge who pronounces an unjust sentence, are blasphemers.
The man who bows to public opinion against his better judgment and against his honest conviction, is a blasphemer.
American 19th Century Freethinker-Robert Ingersoll