The recent statement of Senator Farhatullah Baber and revelation about a quarter-century-old report on the blasphemy law has reignited the dimming hope that a purposely debate about its amendment could be held.
Despite acknowledging its growing misuse by all sections of our society, including religious scholars, politicians, government, judiciary and civil society, our leadership has failed to show the guts and raise a consensus to have the debate in the parliament over this most misused, criticised and controversial law in Pakistan.
Although some parliamentarians made attempts to have a debateon this issue, their endeavours remained unsuccessful. Either they were silenced with death threats from extremists, or discouraged by their fellow parliamentarians. In May 2007 when Minority MNA Mr M P Bhandara presented a private bill, it incensed many parliamentarians and the then Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sher Afgan Khan Niazi articulately warned Mr Bhandara that Pakistan is Islamic country and such a bill cannot be discussed in parliament.
In November 2010, PPP’s MNA Sherry Rehman dared to submit a private member’s bill to amend the blasphemy law, but she was also threatened with death, as her act was considered equal to blasphemy by some people. Thousands of people related to different Islamic groups rallied and protested nationwide against her proposal of dropping the death penalty. At last, the then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was forced to announce the government was not considering to amend the blasphemy law and no committee had been formed to suggest changes in the law, in order to calm Islamic extremists.
Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and General Pervez Musharraf also tried to amend the law but failed, with even the police not following their directive. By the passage of time and obliviousness of our politicians now it has become a complicated and sensitive issue, and whenever such statement comes from anybody, Islamic groups vehemently oppose any amendments. Last time, in March 2016, Islamic groups only ended their four-day sit-in in Islamabad after assurance from the government that the blasphemy law would not be amended.
Now PPP’s senior politician Senator Farhatullah Babar’s statement about reforming the blasphemy law has raised our hopes of seeing an end to the ongoing misuse of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. So far, I saw no strong objections or protests from the Islamic groups. Perhaps it is not to my knowledge, or they might be waiting for further developments, but one thing I am sure about, is that it is not going to be easy.
According to Senator Babar, Senate Committee on Human Rights’ discussions about blasphemy laws will be based on recommendations from an old report that remained untraceable for 24 years. He recently discovered the document, told by Mr I A Rehman, Director HRCP a strong critic of the blasphemy law.
Senator Baber says it is a mystery how the Criminal Law (Third Amendment) Bill 1991 — making the death penalty mandatory for blasphemy — was passed, despite the relevant committee seeking clarification.
I think it all happened after Advocate Ismail Qureshi, and some other people had a meeting with the then PM Nawaz Sharif. What a coincidence that he is the prime minister now when the amendment is being recommended again. It is often said that PM Nawaz Sharif has changed since then and is a different person now. I can say his speech at the recent inauguration of a water filtration plant at Katas Raj temple complex was a slight glimpse. The aspiration to make a Pakistan minority friendly country and promoting its soft image in the world is not possible while we have the blasphemy law on our statute book. The Senate Committee on Human Rights is providing another opportunity, and it’s time for the prime minister to take this matter and prove that what he said was not just a political statement, but his vision for Pakistan to make this country Quaid’s Pakistan.
The committee had raised remarkable questions like what punishment was given to blasphemers during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) or during the times of caliphs, or afterwards, and in other Muslim countries. Though most Muslim scholars prescribe capital punishment for blasphemers, there are several reputable scholars like Javed Ahmed Ghamdi and Dr Khalid Zaheer who are of a different opinion. They find no direct references to such punishment in the Holy Quran. There are also some scholars who have a different view about punishment for non-Muslims including those jurist consultants who helped the Federal Sharia Court in 1990. The worst thing in blasphemy cases is that most of the time cases are registered by the local leader or Imams, based on hearsay. Sadly, because of the inaction against the perpetrators of our government, a very dangerous mindset continues to develop. As soon as any person is accused of blasphemy, he or she is already considered a blasphemer. Instead of handing over that person to the authorities, they are often killed by vigilantes, and several people have been killed in police custody too.
Though Senator Baber said the committee would consider a proposal making it binding to investigate complaints before registering a case, to ensure “genuine blasphemy” had been committed and the law was not being used to settle personal vendettas, my concern is how the committee is going to stop those who believe that killing a blasphemer is their religious duty and do not wait for justice.
And most dangerously, as soon as anyone is accused of blasphemy the local imam gets involved and makes fiery and provocative announcements from the mosque’s loudspeakers. People become emotional, and take the law into their own hands, attack the churches, burn Christians’ towns and even kill innocent people with impunity.
If I am not wrong, for the first time five people have been sentenced to death and another eight imprisoned for two years for killing Shama and Shahzad, while victims of Shanti Nagar, Gogra, Joseph colony and several other attacks are still waiting for justice.
Because of the long delay in having a debate, we have lost so many innocent people, especially those who raised their voice against the misuse of blasphemy law, like Punjab’s Governor Salman Taseer, who took up the case of a poor and illiterate Christian lady Aasia Bibi, and Shahbaz Bhatti the only Christian minister who demanded changes in the blasphemy law. What an irony that the blasphemy law, which was introduced by the British government in united India as a secular law, is now considered a divine law by many and even discussing it is considered blasphemy.
This is despite the supreme court saying that discussing the blasphemy law is not blasphemy. Though at numerous times in the past we read news about reviewing and changes in the blasphemy law, nothing ever happened. I hope that this time the Senate Committee on Human Rights will succeed in its task.
The world has changed so much since 1991, and therefore we need to change too. Political rhetoric, not enough. We are not living in isolation, but our interests are linked to the international community. Apart from our domestic law, we are also under the obligation of international law as we have ratified dozens of international conventions and treaties related to the right to life, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech and expression and several others, which condemn the punishment prescribed by the blasphemy law. We need to prove to the world that we are a responsible nation that cares about our minorities and believes in equality, peace and justice.