In June 2008, Asiya Bibi, a Pakistani farm worker and mother of five, fetched water for others working on the farm. Many refused the water because Asiya was Christian. The situation got ugly. Reports indicate Asiya was harassed because of her religion and the matter turned violent. Asiya, alone in a hostile environment, naturally would have attempted to defend herself but was put in police custody for her protection against a crowd that was harming her.
However, that protection move turned into one that was to earn Asiya a death sentence. A case was filed against her under sections 295-B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code, claiming that Asiya was a blasphemer. Her family will appeal against the judgment in the Lahore High Court.
The Asiya case raises the fundamental question of how Pakistan’s minorities have been left unprotected since the passage of the blasphemy law. There may have been no hangings on account of the law but it has facilitated the spread of intolerance and populist rage against minorities, often leading to deaths. There is also a direct link between the Zia-ist state’s intolerance against minorities and the rise of criminal treatment of Ahmadis.
Cases have ranged from the Kasur case to the more recent Gojra case, from the mind-boggling row of cases between 1988-1992 against 80-year-old development guru Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, to the case of the son of an alleged blasphemer, an illiterate brick kiln worker who was beaten to death by a frenzied mob.
Although doctor sahib faced prolonged mental torture, he was saved from the maddening rage that has sent to prison, and in some cases devoured, many innocent, poor and hence unprotected Pakistanis.
There is a long list, prepared by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, of unjust punishments handed down to Pakistani citizens whose fundamental rights the state is obliged to protect. Beyond punishments, minorities live in constant fear of being lethally blackmailed by those who want to settle other scores.
Yet most political parties have refrained from calling for the law’s repeal or improvement in its implementation mechanism. When, in the early 90s, I asked Nawaz Sharif sahib to criticise the hounding of Dr Khan, his response was a detailed recall of the story in which Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) went to ask after the health of a non-Muslim woman who repeatedly threw garbage over him. He condemned what was happening but said politics prevented him from doing so publicly. Later, General Musharraf, advised by other generals, reversed his announcement of changing the law’s implementation mechanism. Small crowds protested against it. Among politicians, very few exceptions include the PPP parliamentarian Sherry Rehman and, more recently, the ANP’s Bushra Gohar, who asked for its amendment and repeal.
Already sections of the judiciary have been critical of flawed judgements passed by lower courts in alleged blasphemy cases. Recently in July, Lahore High Court Chief Justice Khawaja Sharif quashed a blasphemy case against 60-year-old Zaibunnisa and ordered her release after almost 14 years in custody. According to the judgment, the “treatment meted out to the woman was an insult to humanity and the government and the civil organisations should be vigilant enough to help such people.” Surely the Bench should know the plethora of abuses that Pakistan’s minorities have suffered because of an evidently flawed law.
A message more appropriate, perhaps, would be to repeal the black law that grossly undermines the Constitution of Pakistan and indeed the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, one of the most tolerant and humane law-givers humankind has known. This environment of populist rage, fed by the distorted yet self-serving interpretation of religion principally by Zia and a populist mixing of religion and politics by a politically besieged Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, must be emphatically challenged. A collective effort to roll back these laws must come from parliament, the lawyers’ forums, the judiciary, civil society groups and the media.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2010.