The Christian couple that was beaten and burnt alive on November 4th at the hands of a mob close to Lahore, are two of countless people who have lost their lives as a result of an inherently oppressive law designed to marginalise minorities. Only two days later, Tufail Haider, in jail for being accused of the same crime of blasphemy, was killed with an axe by an ASI of the police. On paper, no law actively encourages killing innocent civilians, but some, like the blasphemy law, facilitate brutality. Each incident of blasphemy is marred by controversy, murders at the hands of the self-righteous, and convictions that are only predicated on the sworn testimony of the accusers. Since the inclusion of the law in the Constitution in 1986, over 1,438 cases of blasphemy have been registered, out of which 51 people have been murdered before their trials could be concluded. Before the law, only 14 cases had been reported. Looking at these numbers alone tells us that something is amiss, with avenues open for exploitation.
The foremost purpose of the legal system is to protect, not punish. This distinction is an important one; punishments are to act as deterrents, and a means of ensuring that those that commit the crime are rehabilitated into a better protected society as reformed citizens. The blasphemy law does neither. Lower courts, that have handed convictions for blasphemy cases on more than a thousand occasions, never consider that personal feuds might have some part to play; and they do in a majority of cases. Empirical evidence is never needed. Are we naïve enough to believe that the integrity of the entire legal system should rely on the supposed infallibility of a sworn testimony?
As far as mob culture is concerned, the belief that street justice is an option, comes from the state’s failure to address the issue. But on no account can people take the law into their own hands, even when they feel that their version of justice has not been upheld by the state. The rationale is ludicrous and undermines the entire premise of a justice system. The mob knows that it can get away with barbaric acts on the street, and the government will only watch from the sidelines. The people that lynched the Christian couple feared no consequences because the police was standing by and watching, which meant that there was no one to stop them from committing the butchery. The state’s complicity exists through its silence, and sometimes active involvement, as with the murder of Tufail Haider by the police and a British citizen of unsound mind murdered under similar circumstances earlier this year. These instances of institutionalised savagery set precedents for a truly uncontrollable mob.
The debate surrounding the blasphemy law is not something that has surfaced out of the blue; indeed human rights activists and social workers have fought to repeal it since its inception. Then there is also the argument of looking at blasphemy from both perspectives, making it punishable for someone to falsely accuse anyone of blasphemy by death. Although reciprocal punishment can prove just as dangerous, the Council of Islamic Ideology’s decision to reject the proposal of the death sentence for false accusers in September last year is also troubling. Even more troubling is the fact that the advisory body did this so no one would be scared of coming forward and accusing anyone. Reciprocity is not the argument being made here; the rejection of the proposal tells us that the state is not interested in making the situation even marginally better for minorities.
Every time a voice is raised, one that poses logical argument against the blasphemy law, it is silenced so that others fear to voice their discontent. Salman Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, Rashid Rahman and many others have been killed because of their stance against the law. Each time the response is less audible, and the dialogue shies away from addressing the real issues, condemning the killings but doing little else to ensure that the incident isn’t repeated. This time it is no different.
There is absolutely nothing that Shama, Shazad, their unborn child, Tufail Haider, Sawan Masih and all the others could have done to deserve this. Nothing. It has now come to a point where those that stand against heinous crimes motivated by the blasphemy law cannot do anything unless the state steps up and performs its duty. Entire organisations and groups of lawyers have now jumped on the bandwagon to get the most out of the law; by propagating and fighting for blasphemy cases for their personal interests, and for those of their clients. In order to protect its citizens - all of them, and not just the ones who subscribe to the most well-endorsed belief system - the government should ideally punish those who treat the blasphemy law as the easy way out of a conflict in the strictest possible manner.
Scrapping the law is essential, because it is time to admit that one man’s religion can be considered blasphemy to another. We must realise that the line is too blurred, and there is no quantifiable method of reasonably assessing that one’s personal beliefs have been insulted. There is no room for such obscurity in the law. Tragedies such as this are beyond condemnable, and must be put to a stop, before we slip even further down the ladder of transgressions against humanity.
The writer is a political science graduate