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A test case for Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, a chance to do right

Tuesday 10 May 2016, by siawi3


By Maria Kari

Published: May 5, 2016

A place where the head is held high and the mind is without fear – Rabrindranath Tagore

Last week in Chichawatni, following an argument between employees of a bus company and travellers, a scuffle ensued and passenger Mahinder Paal Singh had his turban, a strict requirement of the Sikh faith, ripped off his head and thrown to the ground. Chichawatni police took the unprecedented step and booked the five employees – all Muslim – under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law in what is now seen by analysts as a test case.

Singh is a Pakistani citizen. This is his home, the only home he has known and likely the only home he will know. And as a citizen, sections 295, 296, and 298 of the Pakistan’s Penal Code (aka the blasphemy laws) protect him from deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any Pakistani citizen by insulting his religion or religious beliefs.

Even though it is the country’s favourite law to implement, blasphemy law is not the brainchild of Pakistan. Dating back to pre-Partition India, the law really came into its own under the military dictatorship of Ziaul Haq in the 80s. Records indicate that between 1860 and 1947 only seven blasphemy cases were filed. But from 1977 to present day 2,200 cases have been lodged, with charges varying from the mundane (a bricklayer recommending to neighbours they read The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie) to the more rabble-rousing burning of the Holy Quran.

Every case brought under blasphemy charges in Pakistan tends to have two things in common. First, the punishment does not fit the alleged crime (blasphemy laws are punishable by either a life sentence or the death penalty – both a heavy price to pay for speaking out against a religious belief). Second, all these cases involve the alleged desecration and debasement of Pakistan’s sole, national religion: Islam.

This is why Singh successfully laying charges against Muslim men for desecration of Sikhism, a faith very much the minority in Pakistan, is something to sit up and pay attention to.

But despite receiving some public and police support, Singh is not likely to get very far in his quest for justice. The coalition of reason in Pakistan remains shockingly weak. The courts – should they elect to entertain Singh’s case – will move at their usual, sloth-like pace. In the meantime, politicians with hidden agendas and endless means will meddle. Bribes will be passed under the table and covert handshakes will exonerate the accused long before any court in the land will. And, the behemoth machinery that is Pakistani media will switch gears in weeks if not days.

We are, after all, a nation where judges sign death warrants under the blasphemy law and then go on to carry the signing pen as a badge of honour. We are also the same nation that allows its religious radicals to print ‘Om’ on slippers, a word of much value to Hindus, knowing full well that the Pakistani Hindu community would be both devastatingly uncomfortable yet remain devastatingly quiet. And, we are the same nation where vigilante justice by our citizenry often leads to the devastating loss of property and life of those whose lives have become embroiled in blasphemy cases.

To describe the myriad ways in which the human rights of Pakistani non-Muslim minorities are violated daily would exceed this article’s allotted word count. But just like there is an app for everything nowadays, the United Nations Human Rights has an annual Universal Periodic Review to catalogue the atrocious ways in which countries like Pakistan are complicit in silencing and subduing the unlucky few who have the right coloured passport but the ‘wrong’ colour of religion… or skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

Today, religious freedom in Pakistan operates as a binary: Muslim or non-Muslim. With just a week into the incident, whether Singh will become a success story, a poster boy who will be able to say ‘look, I am living proof that change can happen for us minorities ’, is too soon to say. But, in the off chance, if Singh’s test case does bypass the twin evils of bureaucracy and civil lethargy leading to convictions and sentencing under the blasphemy laws, then that alone will be nothing short of a miracle for the minorities of Pakistan who are daily let down, marginalised, and disenfranchised by the state.

Singh’s victory would not be a victory for Singh to walk with his turban held high. Singh’s victory would be a victory for all of Pakistan’s minorities who are waiting on tangible proof that a corner can be turned, that a system can be trusted.

Do you think holding Muslim men accountable for blasphemy is a step forward for Pakistan?

The author is a lawyer and freelance journalist.