Bias and what can only be described as absurdity is growing by leaps and bounds in our country. A doctor has been arrested in Hyderabad on charges of blasphemy. And what had Dr Naushad Valiyani done? He threw the visiting card of a sales representative, who visited his clinic, into the dustbin. The card included the common prefix ‘Muhammad’ ahead of the visitor’s name — as do thousands of other such cards. The doctor said he meant no offence and apologised to the sales rep, saying that he meant no malice and did not intend to hurt his religious feelings.
A senior police official in Hyderabad has been quoted as saying that the man who had felt slighted by the doctor’s action had agreed to withdraw the complaint, but was pressed by local religious leaders. And that is what led to the doctor being arrested. The fact that he belongs to a minority sect may have some bearing on this, given that the more rabid mullahs in society tend to see all sects other their own as based on heresy.
The situation has become a terrifying one. What has happened in Hyderabad suggests that the police are being guided not by law, reason and common sense but by the thug-like behaviour of the religious right and the extreme views held in Pakistan by many clerics who speak and act as if they are guardians of everyone else’s morality and religious feeling. The act committed by the doctor is one most of us would engage in without a second thought. Hundreds of such cards must be tossed away across the country each day. That does not mean we are engaging in acts of blasphemy and that all of us should be arrested, tried and sentenced to die.
Accusing someone of blasphemy has become a means to extract revenge — and in this not only non-Muslims but many Muslims have been accused. In this particular case, it would seem that perhaps the sales representative who first reported the matter to the police was not happy with the reception he received from the doctor. But the fact that even failing to receive a representative can lead to so grave a charge is horrific. The latest incident, coming just weeks after Aasia Bibi, the mother of five, was found guilty of blasphemy by a lower court, highlights the need to tackle the blasphemy laws on an urgent basis. Through the period of over two decades that they have been in place, they have been misused with greater and greater frequency. The police have abetted this by making arrests instantly, without any attempt to assess the matter or examine if there is any logic behind them. Like the case of the Emperor’s proverbial new clothes, fewer and fewer are willing to speak the truth and declare this state of affairs as being absurd and ludicrous.
At the very least, the blasphemy law in its current state must be amended to prevent its gross misuse. The PPP government needs to take the lead in this matter. For starters, it can take ownership of a bill recently tabled in parliament by former information minister and MNA Sherry Rehman. Furthermore, the government should take a stand on this issue because its continuing failure to do so only emboldens the clergy and the obscurantists and cedes much-needed ground to the extremists. The media, for its part, needs to be more vigilant, especially the Urdu media which is read by the bulk of the population, many of whom may not see anything wrong with what has happened in Hyderabad. It can be said with some justification, that the English press railing against the law’s misuse, while good, is nothing more than preaching to the converted.
The courts must look at the need for justice and the apex court should perhaps exercise its suo motu jurisdiction in such matters without fear from extremists. If we don’t take a stand against this lunacy now, there may be nothing to fight for in the not-too-distant future.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 14th, 2010.