On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued the detailed judgment in the Salman Taseer murder case. The judgment takes a cautious, circumspect approach – basing their rulings soundly in Islamic traditions, and littering their suggestions with provisos and explanations – which comes as no surprise since the blasphemy law is a sensitive and inflammatory subject. It is often contended, correctly, that ‘circumspection’ is another word for cowardice; the judiciary and government often go to great pains to avoid a showdown with the religious community in the blasphemy law saga, at the expense of progress. While the force and imperative value of the judgment leave much to be desired, it does nudge the direction of the conversation in the right direction, deals correctly with most legal points, and suggests several workable solutions to reduce the abuse of this law. It is not ground breaking, but the Supreme Court judgment has opened avenues for further growth, and it must be commended for it.

Going beyond the legal nature of appeals they had to decide, the court made several suggestions. The most important is the ruling that a call for reform of the law does not equal a call for its removal. It quickly followed this by saying that committing blasphemy is an immoral, abhorrent and intolerant act. Those who wished for the court to endorse an annulment of the law will be disappointed – as far as the apex court is concerned the law is fine, it just needs to be reformed to avoid abuse. A generally reasonable view, even the law’s supporters agree to this. Yet the court went further, it outlined precise changes in the legal definitions, legal procedure and law enforcement SOPs that would make the law less draconian – something previous benches had refrained from doing. By taking this initiative the court has definitively stated its stance on the law, even if it is heavily veiled behind overt endorsements.

It is commendable that a state institution is taking time to address the thorny issue of the law’s abuse, and is proposing practical solution instead of paying it lip service. The apex court’s ruling will carry weight in the lower courts, and will make prosecution of blasphemy accused relatively difficult, yet the majority of the court’s suggestions can only be implemented by the legislature. Rules relating to police procedure, bench compositions, and interpretation can only be changed if the lawmakers take up the issue in the Parliament. So far the parliament has been too timid to touch this subject, perhaps the Supreme Courts initiative can put pressure on them to do so.