Punishing religious vigilantism

The Court concluded that Salmaan Taseer had merely questioned the workings of the blasphemy law

Haider Nizamani November 13, 2015
The writer teaches political science at the University of British Columbia in Canada. He is the author of The Roots of Rhetoric: Politics of Nuclear Weapons in India and Pakistan

“Religious vigilantism” can “deal a mortal blow to the rule of law in this country where divergent religious interpretations abound and tolerance stands depleted to an alarming level”. “The law of the land does not permit an individual to arrogate unto himself the role of a complainant, prosecutor, judge and executioner.”

The sobering conclusion was made by the three-member bench of the Supreme Court in its detailed decision released on October 27 upholding the lower courts’ decisions which found Mumtaz Qadri guilty in the 2011 murder case of then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. The judgment daringly deals with the thorny issue of the use of religion to carry out extrajudicial killings and misuse of the blasphemy law. The decision, hopefully, will influence public discourse and infuse confidence in the citizenry to critically engage with laws that are going to govern our society.

The bench observed that Qadri’s legal team had brought religious fervour into the case, but the learned judges chose to proceed on the basis that they “are obliged to decide this case in accordance with the law of the land as it exists and not in accordance with what the law should be”. This is a good example of practising the separation of powers theory.

Qadri’s lawyers argued that “the killing of the deceased [Governor Taseer] by the petitioner [Qadri] was on account of the deceased having committed blasphemy … and in that backdrop the petitioner was justified in murdering the deceased”. The Court concluded that Taseer had said nothing against the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) but had questioned the workings of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. The judges also made it clear that the mere conclusion that someone has committed blasphemy does not give an individual a licence to murder.

The Court goes a step further and finds nothing per se wrong in criticism of the blasphemy law attributed to Taseer because it was “promulgated by an unrepresentative military ruler and … because in the absence of safeguards against its misuse, it was being utilised as a vehicle of oppression against innocent people and weaker segments of the society including religious minorities”. The judgment rightly found nothing blasphemous in holding such views. The hate-mongers who want to establish a code of silence over weaknesses in prevalent laws should take heed of this judgment and refrain from hurling allegations of blasphemy at their opponents. However, years of bigotry are unlikely to be washed away with just one judgment.

The Supreme Court says that in case of a murder, two questions are important: one, has the person accused of committing the murder actually done so; two, “if it was the accused person facing the trial who had committed murder in issue, then did he have any factual or legal justification for committing that murder?” Since Qadri voluntarily confessed to having murdered Taseer, the Court was to address whether there was “any factual or legal justification” for the murder. The emphasis is on ‘factual’ and ‘legal’ aspects and in that the Court engaged critically with religious and emotional reasons that were cited to defend his gruesome action.

The Court also dilated upon a spin by Qadri’s legal team and routinely repeated by some televangelists when invited to news channels. The spin goes something like this: as a devout Muslim, Qadri was left with no choice but to kill ‘apostate Taseer’ because ‘the state had failed to take any legal action against the offender’. This line of thought is reminiscent of the roles Amitabh Bachchan and Sultan Rahi played in their heyday where they were shown taking the law into their own hands because the law-enforcement agencies were found wanting in this regard. The judgment unequivocally states: “A police officer acting in a matter by taking law in his own hands may be termed as the worst manifestation of bad faith.”

We want a society that is governed by laws, and not one where laws are misused to the extent of depriving others of their right to live just because it is perceived that a person may have allegedly committed blasphemy. Qadri, through his lawyers, tried to justify this ‘extrajudicial’ killing by referring to religious texts and traditions. The judges, after carefully weighing the documents submitted, concluded that “…in a democratic society citizens have a right to contend, debate or maintain that a law has not been correctly framed by the State”. More importantly, “…seeking improvement of a man-made law in respect of a religious matter for better or proper enforcement of such law does not ipso facto amount to criticising the religious aspect of such law”.

The judges realised that the way religious sentiments are stoked in contemporary Pakistan, “any call coming from serious quarters for reforms in the laws regarding religion-related offences” is usually for bringing in safeguards against misuse of such laws. Therefore, “in all matters ... there is an ongoing effort to keep the laws of the land updated through amendments”. And Taseer was seeking nothing more than that.

The judges went to great length to cite cases where the blasphemy law was misused to settle scores that were patently mundane, such as control over property. The judgment, therefore, calls upon the lawmakers to come up with legislation to prevent innocent citizens from being subjected to “an investigation or a trial” on the basis of trumped-up allegations of blasphemy. Now it is incumbent upon the lawmakers to make necessary changes to laws so that the allegation of blasphemy does not become a ruse to carry out extrajudicial killings, enact personal vendettas and silence dissent.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2015.

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COMMENTS (1)

John B | 4 years ago | Reply | Recommend The PAK SC condemned the process of blasphemy law because it was promulgated by Zia and not by the parliament but argued in its judgement that it will uphold the law regardless. The author also upholds the blasphemy law sacred and argues that provisions should be enacted so that the law will not be "misused". Both the SC and the author cherish the blasphemy law and they both want it in a streamlined manner :ie more power added to it with clearly defined narratives of use. The only issue came out of this judgement is this : only the state has the power to execute someone under blasphemy law. The only problem here is who is to define what is blasphemy and what is discussion and why is it a blasphemy in the first place ? What difference does it make who is the executioner :- under the subjective blasphemy law the accused is doomed and guilty as charged. Repeal or cherish the blasphemy law. It makes no difference whether the state, cleric or Qadri is the executioner. Unjust law cannot be legitimized by any means and by any institution.
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