What if Bulleh Shah were alive today?

Published: July 12, 2012
The author is Director, Policy & Programmes Jinnah Institute, Islamabad. The views expressed are his own

The author is Director, Policy & Programmes Jinnah Institute, Islamabad. The views expressed are his own

The chilling news of a man burnt alive in Bahawalpur on alleged charges of blasphemy has escaped the national media as well as our collective conscience. Other than a token condemnation by President Asif Ali Zardari, no major political leader has bothered to talk about this ghastly incident.

After the brutal assassination of Salmaan Taseer in January 2011, we had given up the hope of even holding a debate on man-made colonial laws on blasphemy. The voices that were asking for a review of the legislation had to retreat as the majority Sunni-Barelvi interpretation captured public discourse. Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri was defended by the same lawyer who viewed ‘rule of law’ as an articulation of a personalised, anti-democracy and Sharia-compliant version of justice. The fact that a former chief justice of Lahore is Qadri’s lawyer reflects the inherent biases and indoctrination that have spread in our society. If a billionaire, liberal politician could be murdered on the streets of Islamabad, what hope does a supposedly deranged man in the deep south of Punjab have?

The rise of vigilantism is also indicative of state failure. Not long ago, we witnessed the inhuman lynching of two young men in the Sialkot district where the state machinery stood by and extended tacit support to ugly scenes of dead bodies being paraded around. A few months later, I was invited to a television talk show where, to my surprise, I was surrounded by a lawyer and a so-called aalim (religious scholar). During the show, the cheerful aalim continued to find obscure and irrelevant references to justify mob-lynching as a kosher form of justice.

As children, we grew up with an occasional visitor, who would show up at our doorstep and make strong incoherent statements about religion, society and political leaders. We were told that he was a majzoob (someone self-involved with his own spirituality). As I grew up, I discovered more of these characters at Sufi shrines, on pavements and even camped around rivers and canals. The world considers these characters insane, while their insanity has its own method and rules.

Media reports suggest that the victim of the mob attack in Bahawalpur was a similar character. A friend in Bahawalpur told me that the victim was a saeen (a peculiar kind of a mystic). Chanighot is not too far away from Uchh Sharif — the ancient seat of Sufism in south Asia. Another field informant says that the man killed was a devotee of Mansur al-Hallaj (858-922 AD, a Persian mystic, who was executed in Iraq on charges of blasphemy). Hallaj’s famous utterance “An’al haq” (I am the truth) became an inspiration for several poets and mystics in the succeeding centuries. The regions that comprise Pakistan have had a rich tradition of Sufi thought and practices. But south Punjab, the land of Sufis, is now occupied by armed militant groups and their foot soldiers who have established their own ideological and quasi-legal writ.

Punjabi poets such as Bulleh Shah have also challenged orthodoxy and I wonder what would have happened had Bulleh Shah been alive today? Would mobs attack him also? The unnamed victim of Chanighot was reportedly on his way to Sehwan and some people allegedly saw him burning the Holy book. The police arrested him but this was not enough. A blasphemer had to be killed there and then. The police station was raided and the man was taken to a public chowk and burnt to ashes.

Even from a legal point of view, and assuming that the man committed a blasphemous act, without an investigation and trial, this barbaric act is unacceptable. The police have registered a case against 2,000 people but we all know nothing will come out of it. The Pakistani state is incapable of tackling such cases. We have seen the release of well-known sectarian killers due to lack of prosecution and inability of judges to take a position on issues concerning religion.

There have been at least nine incidents related to religious intolerance mainly in the Punjab province. A few of them involved mobs surrounding police stations to hand over the alleged blasphemers. Persecution of Ahmadis and Shias is a regular occurrence in Pakistan and hundreds of Hazara Shias have been killed in recent months. The Bahawalpur tragedy will continue to haunt us. It seems Pakistan’s inherent pluralism is being traded for a bigoted society. If anything, the torture and death of a deranged man shows us the dangers ahead: of insane ‘mob justice’, raids and state collapse.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • sabi
    Jul 12, 2012 - 3:47AM

    our collective conscience? do we have any?
    Closing our eyes on every barbaric act just out of fear from these hate mongster mullah will leaad us no where but anarchy.are not we just few steps away from becoming another somalia


  • Umer
    Jul 12, 2012 - 4:27AM

    What if Bulleh Shah were alive today?

    He would not have been alive today, I assure you…and his murderer would have been a grand hero.


  • M. Adil
    Jul 12, 2012 - 5:18AM

    At least Pakistan is living upto most of MA Jinnah’s pledge about how in the new State, Hindus will cease to be Hindus, Christians will cease to be Chritians…. Well, we have almost made sure that that is indeed the case in Pakistan today, and we’re almost at the stage where Muslims are ceasing to be Muslims…! 
    Also, Quaid e Azam had stated that what your religion and beliefs etc are, is no business of the State …. well, the way mob rule,  jihadis and militants such as Taliban, etc are taking over the general rule of law and decimating the society at large, and as the state stands by while Shias and Ahmedis etc are  slaughtered, of course it is no longer a business of the state what your personal religious beliefs are…..! Well done Pakistanis, the Quaid would be proud how you have heeded his very words… though in a way he probably never dreamt in his worst nightmares.


  • Qaisar jan
    Jul 12, 2012 - 7:00AM

    what if zia were born few decades before Bulleh?


  • mr. righty rightist
    Jul 12, 2012 - 7:17AM

    Well sir,

    Pakistan today is like Spider Man – 3.

    There are too many villains, too many actors, too complicated a plot, too much action and character?

    mmmm, that is never developed.

    Why can’t you people live like normal human beings?


  • Jul 12, 2012 - 11:26AM

    He must have been booked in blaspheamy case


  • Abdullah Khan
    Jul 12, 2012 - 11:30AM

    Recently, during an interview for a job in a gulf country, I casually asked an interviewer about the religious freedom in his country. And his reply was: We are civilized country where religion is a personal matter. We are not like Pakistan.


  • Raw is War
    Jul 12, 2012 - 1:30PM

    @ mr. righty rightist

    only spider man is missing.


  • Ozymandias
    Jul 12, 2012 - 2:42PM

    @M. Adil:
    As they say, be careful what you wish for!


  • Nauman Khalid
    Jul 12, 2012 - 3:00PM

    @Abdullah Khan. Sir, please don’t give example of any GCC country as a civilized country where even if you can live for decades and even then you or your children cannot get citizenship. Where individual freedom is the last thing to occur. I think you should have asked him about other aspects of humanity where they are miles behind normal humans.


  • jagjit sidhoo
    Jul 12, 2012 - 3:42PM

    He must be turning in his grave and if he were alive he would have been stoned for blasphemy.


  • Prof.Imtiaz Shaikh
    Jul 12, 2012 - 4:03PM

    When the Salman Taseer was murdered, I studied the literature at the blasphemy topic… and a single line in support of killing somebody couldn’t find. Interestingly the literature was provided by a so called jihadi/Islamic organization. The given examples were not enough to issue the FATWAS of somebody’s murder. There were so many reasons which were behind the persons who were punished to death at Hazrat Muhammad Peace be upon him’s order. Or some killer was pardoned from a murder of a blasphemer.
    All Punjab lovers are requested to pay attention the day by day increase in killings and murders. These killings and murders are not of religious nature only these are now social killings. Every one is ready to kill his/her relative, friend or a stranger… Plz check the murders numbers in daily newspaper and on media.


  • Tufail Malik
    Jul 12, 2012 - 4:41PM

    What if Bulleh Shah were alive today?
    he would have been cursing Zia Ul Haq, who introduced terror in our society.he would have been cursing the current politicians who are mindless.


  • Abdullah Khan
    Jul 12, 2012 - 6:30PM

    @Nauman Khalid: Agreed Nauman. In the western countries, you can marry local girls and can also obtain citizenship. But in Arab world you are treated like pariah. Still, there is a movement to Arabise the South Asian Muslims. Khuda Hafiz, the popular way of saying good bye is being replaced by Allah Hafiz.Ramzan Mubarak is Ramadan Kareem. I fear a day will come when we will be forbidden to speak Urdu/Punjabi etc and they will ask to read only Arabic books, recite Arabic poems. we will be told since Biryani and bihari Kababs are of indian origin so we should only eat Mashkoul and Al-kabsa. We should stop wearing Sherwani. Being Muslim is not equivalent to being an Arab.

    Hope my predictions are wrong.


  • Baba
    Jul 12, 2012 - 7:13PM

    You refreshed my memory about Sialkot incident, which has changed my thinking about
    Pakistani people in reverse order. After watching that incident on TV, i was littarally shivering and could not watch news for next few months. That incident was enough to give us hint about the direction we are moving towards.


  • anonymus
    Jul 13, 2012 - 2:35AM

    The fact that a former chief justice of Lahore is Qadri’s lawyer reflects the inherent biases and indoctrination that have spread in our judiciary. well said


  • kaalchakra
    Jul 13, 2012 - 9:56AM

    Shah was just a Punjabi poet. Poets like him exist all the time but never mean much for the society at large. The core of the society is formed, changed and led by great thinkers like the great sufi saint, Shah Waliullah – Bulleh Shah’s magnificent contemporary who transformed India and revived the fortunes of Muslims.


    Jul 15, 2012 - 6:38AM

    “If anything, the torture and death of a deranged man shows us the dangers ahead: of insane ‘mob justice’, raids and state collapse” i totally agree seriouslyy where ARE WE GOING WITH THIS BULLEY SHAH SAHAB WOULD HAVE DEFINATELY BEEN BOMBED, TARGET KILLED OR BURNT ALIVE IF HE WERE IN THIS COUNTRY NOW.


  • Sana
    Jul 28, 2012 - 3:20AM

    @kaalchakra i don’t agree with u. How can u say that poets and writers don’t influence society at large? Poetry has a great influence on human thought and behaviour.Can u tell me how many poets like Bulleh Shah were born in the past 1300 years?


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