December Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | Society | Published 9 years ago

Five-month pregnant Shama Bibi and her husband Shahzad Masih are but the latest three victims of a never-ending list of horrific crimes committed in the name of Islam. They were not the first, and they will not be the last victims of killings by vigilante mobs, the self-styled ‘custodians of the faith,’ who have in many instances falsely accused people of blasphemy and killed them, even before the state could proceed according to the law to determine their guilt.

The fault lies not in our stars. It lies squarely within ourselves. It lies in Pakistani laws, their intent, their semantics and their mode of implementation — or the lack thereof. It lies in the discriminatory application of the laws, especially those pertaining to ‘blasphemy.’ Shamefully, it also lies in the widespread perception of non-Muslim Pakistani citizens (aka ‘minorities’) as being of no consequence — and also in the discrimination the majority of them face due to their socio-economic status and specific vulnerabilities, demonstrated through the impunity with which false accusations are made against them.

Additionally, it lies almost unnoticed in our outmoded, but still firmly entrenched economic class structures, social systems and feudal/tribal/clan affiliations. The record shows that the blasphemy laws are overwhelmingly used to settle personal vendettas or financial and political scores — mostly among the poor — targeting both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The exceptional cases were those of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP’s) Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, the PPP’s Federal Minister for Minorities, Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP)’s Advocate Rashid Rehman. All three were falsely accused of blasphemy and killed.

Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, the eminent Pakistani development worker who had won international accolades for his Orangi Pilot Project, spent the last frail years of his life under trial for blasphemy in yet another false and mala fide accusation.

The blasphemy laws are part of the Pakistan Penal Code (1860), inherited from, and a remnant of, the British Raj. [See Box 1] The original purpose of the law was to prevent inter-communal disharmony, rather than become an instrument thereof. The inherent, innovational contradictions in the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship-inserted provisions of the laws pertaining to blasphemy are many. They run counter to the spirit of religious and sectarian tolerance, acceptance, love and inter-faith harmony. They are also in direct conflict with the constitutional protections and safeguards of fundamental human rights in Pakistan.  [See Box 2]

Pakistan, being a member of the United Nations (UN) and the UN Human Rights Council, as well as a state party to the UN Declaration of Human Rights and several other human rights conventions (e.g. the CAT, ICCPR, ICESCR), cannot demonstrate a legal justification for the changes made — undemocratically and unconstitutionally — to the existing blasphemy laws during the 1980s and in 1991.

It is important to keep in mind the language of these laws and their amendments a century later. In its original intent, the language was not religion-specific. It was meant to safeguard the respect and sanctity of all the religions of then British India, and to maintain inter and intra-religious/sectarian peace and harmony, with mutual consideration in the subcontinent.

When General Zia-ul-Haq ensconced himself in power in Pakistan after staging a coup d’etat in 1977, he started his so-called ‘Islamisation’ project, demonstrating a clearly visible mala fide intent. The blasphemy law amendments form part of this project, along with the promulgation of the Hudood Ordinances, the Qanoon-e-Shahadat, and the institution of the Federal Shariat Court — followed by the promulgation of the Qisas and Diyyat provisions, post-Zia, in 1990.

In 1986, sections 295-B and 295-C of the blasphemy laws introduced the additional clause of life imprisonment for Islam-specific blasphemy. Subsequently, in 1991, the Federal Shariat Court struck down the additional clause of life imprisonment in section 295-C and, instead, made the death penalty mandatory upon conviction under this section.

An important question arises: Is it not important to respect all the religions practised in Pakistan? And is it not incumbent upon the majority Muslim population of Pakistan to accord to Christianity the special respect that both the Quran and Sunnah enjoin upon all Muslims for all time?

Not in the ‘land of the pure,’ it would appear. Respect for all Prophets (Peace be upon them), all holy books and all sacred places and objects, has been superseded by respect for only the religion of the majority. This is directly in conflict with the articles of Pakistan’s unanimously adopted Constitution of 1973, cited in Box 3.

Law-generic-2-jpgTo give him due credit, the next military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, did attempt to touch his predecessor’s blasphemy laws very early on in his nine-year regime (1999-2008). At the conclusion of a conference titled, ‘Human Rights and Human Dignity For All’ (Islamabad 2000), he announced a minor change in the procedure of registering cases under the blasphemy laws, not touching even an iota of the substantive law itself.

Predictably, the religio-political parties and their supporters among extremist organisations and jihadi groups erupted into a storm of violent street protests. Within the week, General Musharraf retreated to the status quo ante, thereby reneging on his public promise to protect Pakistan’s non-Muslim citizens, Muslim minority sects, and the weak and vulnerable Muslims from even just the problematic procedural aspects of the law.

Had it been done, it would have meant a small measure of protection for those most targeted: the Shias, Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, academics (teachers, professors), researchers, religious scholars, lawyers (especially defence counsels), the mentally challenged, the poor, the illiterate, the powerless, and vulnerable… indeed, an ever-expanding list.

During the PPP’s fourth tenure in the federal government (2008-13), it set up the Committee for Constitutional Reforms (CCR), with representatives of the political parties in Parliament as members, nominated by their respective parties.

It is a telling reflection on all political parties — left, right, centre, religious or professedly secular — that not a single woman (comprising 48 per cent of the population), nor a single non-Muslim Pakistani (variously estimated at between three to five per cent of the population) was nominated, despite vigorous efforts at the time. Thus, for the 18th Constitutional Amendment, around 53 per cent of the total population remained effectively unrepresented and unheard in the CCR.

Undeterred, both the excluded populations — as well as human rights defenders, organisations and progressive jurists — continued to make concrete, substantive inputs to the CCR, both publicly and in writing, in attempts to redress the injustices of Zia’s tenure.

One of their foremost concerns was to re-open, review and start a discussion on General Zia-ul-Haq’s 8th Constitutional Amendment, which effectively gave him personal indemnity for imposing martial law and provided protection to his unconstitutional legislative edicts, including, inter-alia, the amendments in the blasphemy laws.

All these efforts proved in vain and the 18th CA was adopted in 2010 cravenly, without even touching the 8th CA. Subsequently, despite the inherent travesty, the PPP heads of government and state proudly proclaimed that, “the PPP has restored the 1973 Constitution to its original [i.e. pre-Zia] form.”

This was proven untrue when one of their own parliamentarians was accused under the blasphemy laws for having displayed the courage to discuss a draft bill, proposing just procedural amendments to the laws. Obviously, that bill — together with its thought-provoking, still-valid Statement of Objectives and Reasons — was quickly scuttled.

The sad saga did not end there. On January 4, 2011, the PPP’s own high-profile Governor Salman Taseer, suffered a vigilante execution, in broad daylight, in an upscale Islamabad locality, by one of his own government security guards for the perceived ‘blasphemy’ of visiting and supporting a poor Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who was under trial, accused in a ‘blasphemy’ case.

Another outrage followed on March 2, 2011, when the PPP federal cabinet’s only Christian minister, Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed as he left his home in Islamabad. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) proudly claimed responsibility, as he was an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws.

Simply participating in their funerals and memorial services became “an act of courage” in the face of a spate of warning fatwas and edicts, with groups of lawyers garlanding Taseer’s jailed killer being brought to court, and sections of the clergy intimidating the judge. Likewise, attending the funeral rites of, and tributes to, the brave human rights defender, Advocate Rashid Rehman in Multan (who was killed in May 2014). On each occasion, the presence, support and solidarity of the federal/provincial governments and legislators were sadly found lacking.

Barring the usual progressive voices and brave faces, few Pakistani Muslims stood up to be counted for Bhatti or even fellow-Muslims like Taseer and Rehman.

The CCR was instituted to comprehensively review the blasphemy laws and the data pertaining to their use, abuse and misuse; and then, in consultation with all the stakeholders and primary targets, to formulate a report on the recommendations for legislation.


While such a report does exist, neither the PPP government, along with its coalition partners (ANP, MQM and PML-Q), nor its successor government, the PML-N, have had the courage to declassify and publicly release it, let alone to table it for a parliamentary debate.

Why is the small but vocal section of over-zealous Pakistani Muslims so different from those in the rest of the 55 Muslim states? Or, for that matter, from the majority of Muslims living in the non-Muslim diaspora? Why is the non-violent Pakistani Muslim majority so silent and apathetic, even in the face of the continuous atrocities committed in the name of religion? [See Box 3] Why is there not a bigger outcry when entire Christian colonies are burnt to ashes by frenzied mobs, even if just one of its residents is accused of blasphemy?

In Pakistan, it is abundantly clear by now that no elected or non-elected government, no military dictator, no civilian dispensation and no parliamentarian, is willing to touch, or go anywhere near, the current version of the blasphemy laws at this stage. So what, if anything, can be done to try to at least stem, if not reverse, the tide of killings and judicial death warrants in cases of perceived blasphemy or false accusations? Short of re-opening the law itself, there are both short- and long-term measures that can be taken.

First of all, the state must enforce the rule of law. Vigilantism and mob rule is allowed to prevail only in either banana republics or failed states. The state must eliminate the misuse and abuse of the blasphemy laws to settle personal scores and vendettas. It must ensure the effective protection of the accused, as well as the judges, witnesses, prosecution and the police. Those making false and frivolous accusations must be strongly prosecuted. Justice must prevail, even in the face of threats and intimidation.

Next, the language and semantics of the blasphemy laws is a moot point. The language needs to be corrected to revert it back to its real meaning and original intent, i.e. the crime of showing disrespect towards all religions, all revered personages and all sacred texts and objects. Such a move does not need any apologetic justification, because all believing Muslims are enjoined to revere all faiths, and to respect and protect all their adherents.

Further, in order to truthfully assert that “the 1973 Constitution has been restored,” both in letter and spirit, there is a need to re-open the 8th CA — it is never too late. The question is: which government will have the courage to do this? The answer lies in forming an all-parties CCR for a new Constitutional Amendment, but this time with bona fide intent and action.

To achieve such an important objective, the governments, legislators, moderate religious scholars, academics, civil society and the media need to shape positive public opinion and take the people of Pakistan on board.

The state must take stern legal action against the sectarian, extremist jihadi entities, many of which are termed “proscribed” groups, frequently changing their names, illegally re-registering either as NGOs or as philanthropic or political entities, and carrying on their activities. It may be a trite cliché, but it is nevertheless true, that “nature abhors a vacuum.” Hence, the more space we are willing to cede, the more space they have to occupy and proliferate.

There is also an urgent need to start revising public school curricula and textbooks, especially those pertaining to religious instruction, history, social studies and Pakistan studies. We need to teach our children to respect people of all faiths — and even those of none. In fact, we need to teach our children not just tolerance, but love for all.

We need to do all the above, and more. But do the powers-that-be in Pakistan today have the vision, the desire, the courage, the intent, the commitment and the will to take the first step in this direction? The jury is still out on that one.

Christian Couple Lynched Over ‘Blasphemy’….

…was the screaming headline just below the masthead of the English daily, Pakistan Today, on November 6, 2014, along with a file photo of the bonded labourers, Shahzad Masih, Shama Bibi and one of their four children, residents of Chak 59 village near Kot Radha Kishan, Kasur district, 60 km from Lahore. There were similar headlines in the print and electronic media in Pakistan and around the world.

141106015619-pakistan-couple-killed-blasphemy-horizontal-galleryAllegedly, five-month pregnant Shama, who wanted to get rid of her late father-in-law’s black magic ‘evil’ objects, including paper inside amulets, burnt them and threw the remains on a garbage heap.  A Muslim co-labourer in the brick kiln, M. Irfan, saw the charred pieces of paper and raised a hue and cry, accusing her of having desecrated the Quran.

The situation in the entire colony spiralled out of control after commands to kill the couple were made over the mosque loudspeakers. Despite the danger to the couple’s life, the kiln owner, Chaudhry Yusuf Gujjar, did not permit them to flee from the kiln and the village, as they owed him bond money. A few Muslim neighbours alerted the local police to the risk the couple faced, due to the incitement from the mosque, but the police did not intervene to save their lives or to disperse the crowd.

The villagers called in people from five neighbouring villages and a frenzied mob of thousands gathered.  They first hit the couple on their heads with hatchets and clubs, then tied them to a tractor and dragged them across an under-construction road, littered with crushed stones.  Next, they doused the couple with petrol and threw them into the blazing brick kiln.  Thousands watched the entire event, including the police in the parked vehicle, but no one intervened to save their lives.

When it was all over, heavy contingents of police reinforcements arrived, restored order, and registered the First Information Report (FIR # 475/14) at the Kot Radha Kishan police station.  The horrific crimes were registered under the Pakistan Penal Code. In addition, Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) was also invoked.  Subsequently, 44 of the 53 named men were arrested.

The couple’s few remains were hastily buried at midnight, allegedly “to prevent a Christian backlash.” Shama’s sister was an eye-witness to it all, but the police did not include her in the FIR, which raises doubts as to their intent. There is a long history of the miscarriage of justice, particularly in alleged blasphemy cases involving Pakistani Christians.

This time, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken suo moto notice and, at the hearing held on November 25, the Chief Justice himself presided over the three-member bench, reviewed the report submitted by the IGP/Punjab and the Minorities Department, Punjab Government.  He issued notices, ordering the DPO and RPO to appear at the next hearing.

This inhuman act stayed on the front page of the newspapers for a very brief span, before being relegated to the inner pages, and 10 days later, the news of the Supreme Court’s suo moto hearing was clubbed together with two other issues pertaining to the minorities and, barring the few notable exceptions in the English-language print media, was relegated to the back burner — until the next gory incident surfaces.

 Box 1: Chronology of Blasphemy  Laws

During the British rule in India, four blasphemy laws were introduced, three of them in 1860 (Indian Penal Code [IPC] Sections 295, 296 and 298), and the fourth (IPC 295-A) in 1927.

[1860 original] Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 295:  Injuring or defiling a place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class.

Whoever, destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine or with both.

iStock_000014647238MediumSection 296: Whoever voluntarily causes disturbance to any assembly lawfully engaged in the performance of religious worship, or religious ceremonies, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description, for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.

Section 298:  Uttering words, etc. with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings.  Whoever, with any deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any persons, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person, or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.

[1927 addition] IPC Section 295-A: Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of ‘His Majesty’s subjects’ [now the PPC reads ‘the citizens of Pakistan’], by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, or with fine, or with both.

Between 1980-1985, President Gen. Zia-ul-Haq added five sections to the PPC laws relating to blasphemy, two of which were specific to the Shias and the Ahmadis.

Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) Section 295-B: Defiling, etc. of copy of the Holy Quran.  Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Quran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.

PPC Section 295-C: Use of derogatory remarks, etc. in respect of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).  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 (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to a fine.

PPC Section 298-A: Use of derogatory remarks, etc. in respect of holy personages.

PPC Section 298-B: Misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles, etc. reserved for certain holy personages or places.

PPC Section 298-C: Person of Qadiani group, etc. calling himself a Muslim or preaching or propagating his faith.

 Box 2: Constitutional Rights and Protections

Preamble: It is the will of the people of Pakistan to establish an order … wherein shall be guaranteed fundamental rights, including equality of status, of opportunity and before law, social, economic and political justice, and freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship and association, subject to law and public morality.

Article 20:  Subject to law, public order and morality, (a) every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion; and (b) every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.

Article 25: (1) All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law.

Article 36: The state shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities, including their due representation in the federal and provincial services.

Box 3: Vigilante Injustice

This is just a small snapshot of a few of the numerous Christian Pakistanis who were booked under the blasphemy laws and killed without a trial.

– In 2003, Samuel Masih, an accused under the blasphemy law, was killed by a police guard who was supposed to look after him in hospital in Lahore. He said that his religious duty to kill a blasphemer was more important than his official role and duty as a policeman.

000_Del6147477– In 1994, Manzoor Masih was shot dead as he walked out of a Gujranwala court after his blasphemy case hearing.

– Emmanuel Brothers: Pastor Rashid Emmanuel (32) and his brother Sajid Emmanuel (28) were falsely accused of blasphemy and killed outside the court in Faisalabad, in 2010.

– In 2009, Fanish Masih was detained by police on charges of blasphemy in Sialkot Central Jail, and was found dead in his cell the following day. There were marks of torture on his body.

Community Under Siege

Even after acquittal on blasphemy charges, survivors are not free to move around. Most of them live in hiding or even seek asylum abroad. Often whole communities are displaced, fearing further persecution, even though the blasphemy charges were proven to be false:

– In 2010, 250 houses were burnt to ashes in Shanti Nagar after an old man, Baba Raji, was accused of blasphemy.

–     In 1998, Christians in Ali Pur Chatha had to run for their lives when three Christians were accused of blasphemy.

– Three churches in Shangla Hill, the convent high school for girls and the pastor’s house were burnt in 2005 by a mob of 3,000 people protesting against an alleged case of blasphemy against Yousaf Masih.

– In 2006, a church and Christian homes were attacked in a village outside Lahore in a land dispute. Three Christians were seriously injured and one was missing after around 35 Muslims burned buildings, desecrated Bibles and attacked Christian families.

– In 2009, Pastor Shafique Anjum (35) and his brother Naveed Aziz (17) were arrested in the district of Narowal. They were accused of blasphemy but no case was registered against them.

– In 2009, five victims of a blasphemy case were acquitted after a two-year trial, by the district and session judge Sheikh Salahudin in Toba Tek Singh, Punjab.  A fake case of blasphemy was registered against Salamat Masih, Ishfaq Masih, Rashid Masih, Tanveer Masih and Saba Masih.

– In 2012, as a result of the Rimsha Masih case, all the Christian residents of Meherabad Colony, Islamabad were threatened and forced to flee their homes in the middle of the night.

– In 2013, Sawan Masih was accused of blasphemy in Joseph Colony, Badami Bagh, Lahore. A frenzied mob burnt down the entire Christian colony.

According to a conservative estimate, 14,000 Christians fled from Pakistan in 2013 alone [Source: WorldVision].



This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue.