By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
Riots broke out in Ghotki town (Ghotki District) of Sindh on September 15, 2019, after a school principal from the minority Hindu community was booked on charges of alleged blasphemy. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) tweeted a video of protesters breaking the infrastructure of the school and wrote, “Alarming reports of accusations of blasphemy in Ghotki and the outbreak of mob violence”. Videos of stick-wielding protesters were also shared on social media in which they were seen vandalising a Hindu temple. The protests erupted after a FIR (first information report) was filed against the Hindu principal of Sindh Public School on the complaint of Abdul Aziz Rajput, a student’s father, who claimed that the teacher had committed blasphemy. The principal, identified as Notan Lal, was booked and then arrested on charges of blasphemy on September 16.
On May 27, 2019, a Hindu veterinary doctor, identified as Ramesh Kumar, was arrested in Phulhadiyon area of Mirpurkhas District of Sindh after a local cleric filed a Police complaint accusing him of committing blasphemy. Although the doctor was arrested, radical organisations and their supporters were not pacified and took to setting fire and damaging shops owned by Hindus in the area besides, burning tyres on the roads. The head cleric of the local mosque, Maulvi Ishaq Nohri, filed the complaint with Police alleging that Kumar had torn pages of a holy book and wrapped medicines in them.
On March 20, 2019, one student, identified as Khateeb Hussain, at Bahawalpur’s Government Sadiq Egerton College stabbed Associate Professor Khalid Hameed, the head of the English Department of the college, to death over what he vaguely described as the academic’s “anti-Islam” remarks. Khalid Hameed was seated inside his office at the college when he was allegedly accosted and attacked with a knife by the student. According to initial information noted by the Police at the scene of the crime, Khateeb Hussain, who was a 5th-semester Bachelor of Arts (BA) student of the English Department, had exchanged hot words with Professor Hameed at around 8:40am [PST] over the arranging of a ‘welcome party’ at the college. The event, which Hameed was overseeing, was to be held on March 21, 2019, to welcome new students to the college. Hussain was averse to the event being organised because he viewed the mingling of male and female pupils at the function as “un-Islamic”. Following an argument, Hussain stabbed the associate professor to death. The student equated the teacher’s words with blasphemy, Police said.
Targeting people by accusing them of blasphemy is a persistent phenomenon in the theocratic state of Pakistan. In its annual report released on April 15, 2019, HRCP stated that around 70 people had been lynched since 1990 on accusations of insulting Islam. “In many cases, blasphemy allegations end up in a mob lynching or targeted killing of the accused before they can be tried or heard in a court of law,” the report added.
Similarly, a November 1, 2018, media report, quoting the Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), stated that at least 75 people had been killed in Pakistan since 1990, by angry mobs and individuals on the accusation of blasphemy. Out of the 75 people killed until January 31, 2018, 14 murders took place in Lahore, including the murder of retired judge of the Lahore High Court Arif Iqbal Bhatti. Bhatti was killed on October 17, 1997, by Ahmad Sher in Lahore (Lahore District), because he had given a verdict in 1995 to acquit two Christian men of blasphemy charges.
Among the most high-profile killings relating to blasphemy was that of the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, came forward in the support of Aasia Bibi, the first woman to be accused of Blasphemy. On January 4, 2011, Salman Taseer, the Governor of the Punjab province, was killed by his own security guard, because Taseer had sought to an amendment of the blasphemy law to remove the mandatory death penalty on conviction. Subsequently, on March 2, 2011, unidentified assailants killed the Federal Minorities Affairs Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, another outspoken critic of the law.
Aasia Bibi, also known as Asia Noreen, a Christian woman from Ittan Wali village in the Sheikhupura District, was sentenced to death on November 7, 2010, for blasphemy, allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad during a row with neighbouring women in June 2009. Noreen denied that she had committed blasphemy and asserted that she had been accused by her neighbours to “settle an old score”. On November 7, 2010, Muhammed Naveed Iqbal, a judge at the district Court of Sheikhupura, sentenced her to death by hanging. Additionally, a fine equivalent to USD 1,100 was imposed. On October 31, 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction, and Aasia Bibi was released from the New Jail for Women in Multan on November 7, 2018.
Fundamentalists and, in some cases, opportunists exploiting the law to settle personal scores, often file false cases of blasphemy. Indeed, it has been established that most such accusations have been fabricated. A study by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) released on November 4, 2015, on the implementation of the blasphemy law in Pakistan, under section 295-C, found that in 19 out of 25 cases, i.e. 76 percent, the appellate courts found that evidence and complaints had been fabricated based on “personal or political vendettas”, and convictions by lower courts were overturned on appeal.
In its annual report released on April 15, 2019, HRCP noted, “The blasphemy laws have been grossly abused with many people lodging false complaints to settle their personal vendettas.” According to the report 40 people were currently on death row or serving a life sentence after being convicted on charges of blasphemy. However, the country is yet to execute anyone for blasphemy.
The decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to quash the conviction of a person who had spent almost 18 years in prison for blasphemy, once again highlighted how the law had been misused in the country to settle personal score. On September 25, 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution failed to provide substantial evidence against Wajih-ul-Hassan, who had been sentenced to death in 2002 for writing allegedly blasphemous letters. Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch observed,
The overturned conviction of a man imprisoned for 18 years highlights just one of many miscarriages of justice stemming from Pakistan’s vaguely worded blasphemy law. Typically, it’s members of religious minorities or other vulnerable communities who are wrongly accused and left unable to defend themselves.
The abuse of the blasphemy law is built into its very character. Under existing laws, a person making a false accusation can only face proceedings under Section 182 of the PPC, which entails a maximum punishment of six months imprisonment, or a mere PKR 1,000 fine. However, the punishment for blasphemy under Sections 295-B and 295-C of PPC ranges from several years in prison to a death sentence.
With international attention focusing on the continuous excesses of the blasphemy law in Pakistan, a Senate Special Committee on Human Rights on March 6, 2018, had recommended that perpetrators of false accusations of blasphemy be given the same punishment as set for those convicted for blasphemy. “Anyone falsely accusing someone of blasphemy should be subjected to the same punishment as a person convicted of blasphemy,” the recommendation stated. The recommendation also stated that anyone looking to register a blasphemy case at a Police Station should have to bring two witnesses to support their accusation. However, committee member Senator Mufti Abdul Sattar, who belongs to the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl, opposed the recommendations, terming them “an attempt to sabotage the blasphemy law.” Mainstream political parties are also unwilling to support the recommendation for fear of losing their extremist and conservative vote banks. Not surprisingly, then Prime Minister hopeful Imran Khan, during his 2018 General Election campaign supported the blasphemy law, declaring, at a gathering of Muslim leaders in Islamabad on July 21, 2018, “We are standing with Article 295c and will defend it.”
The religious right and mainstream parties in Pakistan are in complete agreement with the Islamist terrorist organisations on this count. Significantly, pamphlets of the Punjab Chapter of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) were found from the place of assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti. The pamphlets stated, “anyone who criticises the blasphemy law has no right to live”.
The blasphemy law in Pakistan is a critical weapon for both Islamist extremists and mainstream majoritarian parties and politicians, every one of whom has used Sunni fundamentalism and Islamism as a tool of political control. The marginalisation and victimisation of the minorities in Pakistan can only continue within such a political backdrop, and the abuse of the blasphemy law is unlikely to diminish unless overwhelming international pressure is brought to bear on the Pakistani state to shift course to a more humane and rational politics.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management