Time to Dump Blasphemy Laws


Mera azm itna bulund hae, Parae sholon se dar nahin.

Mujhe dar hae tu atish e gul se hae, Ye kahin chaman ko jala na dein

(my confidence in self is strong, I’m unafraid of foreign flames

I’m scared those sparks may ignite, that in the blossom’s bosom lay )

— Shakeel Badayuni’s couplet which was very dear to Salman Taseer who was assassinated by Islamists

Know Meilana, a 44-year-old ethnic Chinese Buddhist from Indonesia, whose conviction under Indonesia’s controversial blasphemy laws, caused an uproar in the country, merely few months ago. The only ‘offence’ registered against her was that this woman from Sumatra had merely complained about ‘the volume of adzan or call to prayer, from her local mosque’. Her complaint was considered ‘blasphemous’ and even triggered an anti-Chinese riot in which several Buddhist temples were burnt.

While the world at large was contemplating the fall-out of this sentence, and the way in which a Muslim majority country which celebrates pluralism – where religious freedom is stipulated in the constitution – the law has been increasingly used to ‘suppress freedom of expression’, there have been two pieces of news from different parts of the globe worth discussing.

Ireland, a deeply conservative country, dominated by the Roman Catholic church till recently, which merely six years back denied medical termination of pregnancy to a dentist of Indian origin named Savita Halappanavar despite threat to her life, as it was a ‘catholic country’, and let her die, has voted to oust this ‘medieval’ blasphemy law. Remember this law was added to the country’s Constitution in 1937 and included in the country’s statue books merely a decade ago  and had been conveniently used by the Islamic countries to putpressure on the United Nations that it should adopt the wording of Ireland’s blasphemy law.

The referendum to this effect saw 64.85% vote ‘yes’ to remove the prohibition on blasphemy, with 35.15% in favour of retaining it.  Considered part of the ‘quiet revolution’ of ‘seismic, social and political changes in the country’ by its openly Gay Prime Minister, the country has already legalised abortion and gay marriage via similar referendums held earlier.

The second news came from neighbouring Pakistan, where the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, who headed special three-judge bench, acquitted Asia Bibi — a Christian woman accused of blasphemy in 2010 and sentenced to death — by quashing an earlier judgment passed by the trial court as well as high court.

The case had attracted national-international media attention because she was the first woman who had been charged under this controversial law. The intervening period also saw assassinations of two leading politicians, namely, Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a federal minister – by Islamists for demanding rescinding the false charges against Asiabi and also repeal of this anti-human law.

One can just recall the death of Mashal Khan, a journalism student at the Khan Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, who was stripped, beaten and shot in the head and chest by a mob under the charges of blasphemy. The Centre for Social Justice, a Lahore-based research and advocacy group, had then collated information about such killings and according to it

‘at least 62 men and women have been killed on mere suspicion of blasphemy between 1987 and 2015. So far, no one has been executed by the state. ‘3

Looking at the violence which has been unleashed under the name of blasphemy, it need be emphasised that the Asiabi judgement is definitely a ray of hope for all those people who believe in a more inclusive, humane, plural Pakistan but there is no denying that the fundamentalist forces in Pakistan have not taken kindly to this verdict and have held violent demonstrations all over Pakistan. A few fanatic formations have even declared judges Justice Saqib Nisar and his colleagues Wajib Ul Katl (worth to be killed) making it very clear that the challenge of Islamist fanaticism is not going to disappear easily.

Anyway while one celebrates this judgement — where one finds that despite all the dangers which stood in its way, Supreme Court there stood its ground and refused to bow down before vigilante justice and that is definitely a silver lining to the unfolding dark scenario, one discovers to one’s dismay that people/formations belonging to this part of South Asia — namely India –are in a miraculous way  trying to rediscover virtues of blasphemy.

It has been more than two months that the Punjab cabinet, led by the Congress, took steps towards introducing blasphemy laws in this country. It approved amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and Indian Penal Code (IPC) to make sacrilege of all religious texts punishable with life imprisonment. With this new Bill, Section 295AA will be inserted in the IPC to provide that, “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Bhagvad Gita, the Quran and the Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life.”

As rightly put by commentators the law which is being pushed through “[w]ill make punishable by a life term any attempt to hurt the religious (we can’t definitely say what that is) sentiments (a fuzzy area) of people.” 4

An open letter written by a group of retired civil servants explains how “blasphemy provisions, such as the one planned, go against the very grain of the secular character of our Constitution” and how instead of reducing the “role of religion from the matters of the state” would “further consolidate the hold of sectarianism, and strengthen the hands of religious extremists on all sides.”

The statement emphasised how the “Experience of the implementation of blasphemy laws the world over, point to their being particularly prone to misuse against minorities and weaker sections, to harass them, exact revenge and also to settle personal and professional quarrels, all matters entirely unrelated to blasphemy. (Pew Research Centre, 2016, US Commission on International Religious Freedoms, 2017)” and making sacrilege a major offence has “fostered an environment of intolerance and impunity, and led to violations of a broad range of human rights”.  (Freedom House, 2010), it demanded withdrawal of the law.

What happens next is still hidden in future but one can get a glimpse of things if blasphemy law is not rescinded from what happened before.

Not very many people even know that before this issue of blasphemy entered the statue books of Punjab, it has witnessed deaths of two women – both shared the same name Balwinder Kaur, accused of desecrating religious books. Remember Punjab witnessed many cases of desecration of Guru Granth Sahib – during 2015-16 – when Akali Dal ruled the state, which had led to much turmoil in the populace.

Balwinder Kaur, a 47-year-old from Ghawaddi village in Ludhiana, had spent few months in jail accused of ‘desecrating’ Guru Granth Sahib and was on bail when she was killed (July 27,2016) near a Gurudwara Manji Sahib Alamgir allegedly by a Khalistan sympathiser.

The other Balwinder Kaur faced death in her home only (September 9, 2016). She was also released on bail and had similarly spent some time in jail accused of desecration of religious books. The fact that she had entered a Gurudwara inadvertently wearing her slippers andthe issue had got sensationalised, that she was arrested. Her family even faced social boycott for months together. Her husband was arrested for the crime who was agitated that she had brought disrepute to the house.

Much like neighbouring Pakistan where people who are accused of blasphemy and acquitted by judiciary also face death at the hands of Islamists, it then becomes free for all.

Are we ready for that ?

Notes :
1 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/23/woman-jailed-in-indonesia-for-saying-call-to-prayer-too-loud
2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/27/ireland-votes-to-oust-blasphemy-ban-from-constitution
3. ( https://thewire.in/98249/for-the-love-of-god-history-pakistans-blasphemy-laws
4. https://www.dailyo.in/variety/blasphemy-law-freedom-of-speech-amrinder-singh-punjab-government-ipc-crpc/story/1/26211.html
5. ttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/punjab-desecration-murder-khalistan-supporter-prime-accused-2939611/
Subhash Gatade is the author of Pahad Se Uncha Aadmi (2010) Godse’s Children: Hindutva Terror in India,(2011) and The Saffron Condition: The Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India(2011). He is also the Convener of New Socialist Initiative (NSI) Email : [email protected]

Originally published in News Click


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