It all began in June 2009. Asia Bibi, a farm hand from the village of Ittan Wali in Sheikhupura District of the Punjab province in Pakistan, was asked to fetch water. Bibi, whose is the only Christina family in the village, complied, but some of her Muslim fellow workers refused to drink the water as they considered Christians to be “unclean”. Apparently some arguments ensued. There had already been a running feud between Bibi and a neighbour about some property damage.
Later some coworkers complained to a cleric that Bibi made derogatory comments about Prophet Muhammad that “the Quran is fake and your prophet remained in bed for one month before his death because he had worms in his ears and mouth. He married Khadija just for money and after looting her kicked her out of the house.” A mob came to her house, beating her and members of her family before she was rescued by the police. However, the police initiated an investigation about her remarks resulting in her arrest and prosecution. She was subsequently awarded death sentence for “blasphemy” in Pakistan, the first conviction of its kind for a woman.
Even within Pakistan, progressive voices wanted the laws to be amended. But unfortunately these voices are being silenced by the fundamentalist forces.
It may be noted that “Blasphemy law” was formulated under British India way back in 1860. That was of general nature and prescribed punishments for intentionally destroying or defiling a place or an object of worship or disturbing a religious assembly. However, in 1980, the then military dictator, who systematically “islamised” the Pakistani polity and the armed forces, added amendments to the law, making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages an offence and carrying a maximum punishment of three years in jail. In 1982, another clause was added and prescribed life imprisonment for “willful” desecration of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. In 1986, a separate clause was inserted to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad and the penalty recommended was “death, or imprisonment for life”, in that order.
Asia Bibi’s controversial conviction has evoked international outcries. Even within Pakistan, progressive voices wanted the laws to be amended. But unfortunately these voices are being silenced by the fundamentalist forces. On March 2, Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead by gunmen, allegedly by the so-called Pakistani Taliban. Bhatti, a Christian, is the second senior Pakistani official this year to be assassinated for opposing the blasphemy law. Two months ago, Governor of Punjab province Salman Taseer was assassinated by his own body guard for his criticism of the blasphemy law. This assassin body guard is now a national hero in Pakistan, with no lawyer daring to fight against him in the Court. In fact, senior political leaders and intellectuals were afraid to join even the funeral prayers of Tasser, who otherwise, described himself to be “a proud Muslim”.
Last year, a woman member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Sherry Rehman, introduced a private bill to amend the blasphemy law. The bill sought to change procedures of religious offences in such a way that these offences would be reported to a higher police official rather than the usual police station chief. In addition the cases would be heard directly by the higher courts instead of going through the local courts first. The bill was passed on to a parliamentary committee for vetting. It has now been withdrawn under pressure from religious forces as well as some political groups. Given the growing religious conservatism of the people, the government fears that if it approaches the issue pragmatically, it may lose public support.
“¦”these mullahs and their supporters, coming from mainly the lower castes deserve only contempt; you must not make them equals. Once you treat them as equals, there will be chaos and disaster in Pakistan”.
It is obvious that that a large majority of Pakistani people support the idea that blasphemers should be punished. The fundamentalists seem to have brainwashed and mobilized the masses to believe that the law, as codified by the military regime of General Zia-ul Haq, is in fact straight out of the Koran and therefore is not man-made. This explains why the assassin of Governor Salman Taseer was hailed as a hero by a large section of people across the country. And the same status will be accorded by the people to the murderers of Bhatti when identified.
I distinctly remember that when I visited most parts of Pakistan in 2001, I was told by the ordinary people and ruling elites that Pakistan’s fundamentalists were a miniscule community and that there was nothing to fear. To buttress the point, they explained how the religious parties were performing miserably in Pakistani elections. In fact, a Pakistani business man said that “these mullahs and their supporters, coming from mainly the lower castes deserve only contempt; you must not make them equals. Once you treat them as equals, there will be chaos and disaster in Pakistan”. Castes?, I asked. “Yes. Those have converted to Islam from very lower- castes, whereas my great grand father was a Rajput”, he explained. However, I am sure that if I meet the same gentleman today, he will talk of how everybody is equal under great Islam and why sympathisers and supporters Asia Bibi must be sternly dealt with.