In February this year a Christian man threw himself off the fourth floor of the FIA office in Lahore after reportedly refusing to sexually assault his cousin accused in a blasphemy case who was charged with posting objectionable material on Facebook. Ironic that his blasphemy was so terrible that he ended up being arrested to protect the religion of Islam, yet how he was treated was not perceived as a direct violation of Islamic tenants by his captors. No one is alarmed at such fake shows of piety anymore, yet we play along with the half literate accusers out of fear of not appearing to be as pious.
National Assembly Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq on Wednesday directed the interior ministry to crack down on any individual or group involved in posting blasphemous material about the Hindu religion. Good that the step was taken and that such hateful actions towards minorities were called out as being wrong, but there is something to say about “our” blasphemy and “their” blasphemy.
Their blasphemy is worse, because it is against a sacred religion, to which an overwhelmingly massive majority subscribes. Our blasphemy towards their religion isn’t really blasphemy, since theirs is a false religion.
This type of viewing of minority religions and sentiments was on display on Wednesday, when to counter blasphemy against Hindus online, laws about cybercrime were cited rather that any blasphemy law. This is just as well, no one wants to say “blasphemy law” and get misinterpreted, hounded, harassed and threatened by angry clerics and mobs. But we of more mellow minds can at least ponder and marvel at how minorities are so efficiently marginalised in our society. The law that was created by the white coloniser to protect minority groups has ironically been taken up as sacred law by a mob-like right wing and is not even applied to acts where minority sentiments are hurt unlike its original avatar.
Offences relating to religion were first codified by the British in 1860 and expanded in 1927. These laws made it a crime to disturb a religious assembly, trespass on burial grounds, insult religious beliefs or intentionally destroy or defile a place or an object of worship. This was done to try to maintain peace in India that has too much diversity of religion and ethnicity to be stable. It its doubtful that such a law would have been created in a colony that had a homogenous population with very few minority groups. Had that been the case, the blasphemy laws may have never existed in Pakistan.
Under Zia-ul Haq, clauses were added to the laws to “Islamicise” them. In 1980, making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages was made an offence, carrying a maximum punishment of three years in jail. In 1982, another clause prescribed life imprisonment for “wilful” desecration of the Quran. In 1986, a separate clause was inserted to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad and the penalty recommended was “death, or imprisonment for life”. Thus, eventually, the laws lost their initial content of protection of minority religions and communal violence, and their purpose became to protect the majority religion. Some would argue that a majority religion does not need protection as even small attacks on it will not harm its place in society and thus such laws aren’t needed and are used for petty purposes of personal revenge. As sound as such an argument may be, it cannot be denied that when a state is set up as a religious state, such laws are inevitable, as problematic as they are. Thus the point here is not to suggest that these laws shouldn’t exist (a dangerous thing to say out loud anyway), but that since they do, there must be an effort to make sure that minorities are protected the way majorities are.
Protection should be afforded not just for the simple reason that they are citizens of this republic with equal rights, but because as small as they are, minorities are still important. The vote bank of religious minorities has widened to reach close to three million, with 13 districts in Sindh and two in Punjab having significant presence of minorities, enough to change electoral results in many constituencies. For example, data shows that Umerkot and Tharparkar districts in Sindh have 49 per cent and 46 per cent non-Muslim voters, respectively. In Mirpurkhas 33 per cent of voters are non-Muslim. In Tando Allahyar, non-Muslims constitute 26 percent of total voters. Hindus form the biggest minority vote bank in Pakistan followed by Christians and Ahamadis.
In 1947, 23 percent of Pakistan's population was non-Muslim minorities. This figure has dropped to near 3 per cent. Though it is true that after 1947 there had been migrations of minority groups to India, but after the migrations there has been a clear trend of religious minorities wanting to leave. Today Pakistan has turned into a country no one wants to live in. The fear that minorities live in is just not worth it where Muslims can easily malign minority religions and get away with harassing individuals for “hurting” their own religious sentiments.
The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.