By Ishtiaq Ahmed
The barbaric murder of Jagdeesh Kumar, accused of blasphemy by some of his workmates at a garment factory in Karachi, brings out in sharp focus once again the exposed and vulnerable situation of non-Muslims in a Pakistan still wedded to the legacy of General Zia-ul-Haq.
When the police finally intervened, the body of the 22-year-old victim had been mutilated and disfigured beyond recognition: among other things the eyes had been gouged out. The reports published indicate that he was a quiet man, from a poverty-stricken Hindu family belonging to some obscure village in the Sindh desert. People with such a depressed and vulnerable background come to factories to eek out a miserable living, not to engage in religious controversies. In the days and weeks ahead, we will learn that some petty personal quarrel or irrational hatred of a Hindu was the real reason for his murder.
What happened in Karachi was reminiscent of the lynching of African-Americans by white racists in the southern states of the US as late as the early 20th century. Until those laws were changed, black men and women were killed for the flimsiest of reasons. I remember one story when a white shopkeeper took out his gun and shot dead an old black man, who for years had been delivering merchandise to him, when an altercation took place between that man and a white man who had come to the shop for the first time. The white shopkeeper sided with a complete stranger, because the race laws had conditioned him to react in that way.
Anyone who follows the news from Pakistan and reads the reports published regularly by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan would find that violence and brutality against non-Muslims increased exponentially after the blasphemy law was imposed in 1982 and reformulated in 1986. The connection between law and social behaviour is a well-established fact and, quite simply, bad, intolerant and violence-inducing laws produce malevolent behaviour among members of society. Let me quote both the relevant texts on blasphemy in Pakistan:
In 1982, Section 295-B was inserted in the Pakistan Penal Code. It reads: “Defiling, etc., of The Holy Quran: Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Quran or of an extract therefrom, or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose, shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”
In 1986, Section 295-C was added. It stated: “Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”
Those who are familiar with legal expressions and jargon will have no difficulty in understanding that the wordings of the two laws furnish an easy excuse for accusing a person of blasphemy. What can be a matter of at most a spirited discussion on religion and religious icons among educated people can easily be interpreted by illiterates as blasphemy if they discuss religion.
More important, perhaps, is to figure out what purpose these laws are supposed to help realise. If the purpose is to make people, presumably non-Muslims, respect Islam and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), then such an intention is premised on a singularly flawed psychological theory and approach.
Fear induces submission and despondency, not respect. In situations when fear and threats surround the lives of people, they resort to dissimulation and become hypocrites: thinking and believing one thing but saying and doing something else. On the other hand, respect and admiration for someone or some belief is gained voluntarily. It has to come from the heart and cannot be extracted under duress.
There are many non-Muslims who have written laudatory texts on Islam and the life of the Holy Prophet. Recently Karen Armstrong has written his biography which is highly sympathetic. She must have done this by studying his life and finding him praiseworthy. Fear would never have induced such writing.
On the other hand, if the purpose of the blasphemy laws is to terrorise non-Muslims to either convert to Islam or force them out of the country, then the question is: is such an objective compatible with the Constitution of Pakistan which guarantees that minorities shall live in peace and security in Pakistan?
One can argue that even if the intention of adopting the blasphemy laws was to establish respect for Islam and the Prophet and not to terrorise non-Muslims, the overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence abundantly shows that the unintended consequences of the law have been just the opposite. Time and again some Christian or Hindu accused of blasphemy has either been mercilessly killed by a fanatic or a bunch of such people – without ever being punished for breaking the law and committing murder – or subjected to a draconian legal process in which the lower courts almost invariably found him guilty; but the higher courts either acquitted him or commuted his punishment to a lighter sentence.
Now, when a civilian, democratic government is in power, it is time to begin a discussion on the Hudood and blasphemy laws. We must realise that as long as people have different religions and beliefs they are bound to discuss and debate them. In such circumstances the role of the government should be to provide people with a sound education so that they can develop the sensibilities to respect each others’ identity and convictions while engaging in debate and controversy.
It was very encouraging to read columns in the Pakistani English-language press against this latest manifestation of mob frenzy. It is important that our colleagues in the Urdu media also come out strongly against such brazen acts of inhumanity. Some petitions condemning Jagdeesh Kumar’s murder have also been put up on the Internet for signatures. All this is indicative of another type of Pakistan.
The writer is a professor of political science and a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Email: email@example.com