More than murder, rape, treason, treachery and any other crime, blasphemy, even unproven, has serious repercussions for the accused in Pakistan.
The Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) originally enacted in the year 1860, contained blasphemy provisions in it when it was promulgated. In fact, most of the Commonwealth countries whose laws are either promulgated by their colonial masters or who inspired their legislation from Britain have blasphemy laws in their legal system having maximum punishment of three years, though not applied so often as does in Pakistan.
The provisions on blasphemy that were originally codified in the PPC gave a generalized account of the crime. It neither singled out any religion nor did it give out a special status to any particular religion. The original provisions (section 295 and 295-A, inserted in PPC in 1927) had prescribed two years of imprisonment or fine or both.
But with General Zia’s takeover of the state, his overwhelming obsession to remain in the power by gaining the political support of right-wing forces made him Islamize the blasphemy laws. He twisted the character of the law from generalized to a specific one, ultimately leaving its earlier provisions i.e. Section 295 and 295-A almost redundant.
Blasphemy is such a sensitive issue in Pakistan that it cannot be publicly debated on any point of difference of opinion. The assassinations of Ex-Governor Salman Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, along with others, are permanent reminders of the risks involved even if one speaks about reforming the law for good.
For a layperson the provisions inserted in PPC during the Zia era regarding blasphemy have the status of a divine law, but the argument loses the ground because the Qu’ran does not specifically dictate the punishment for blasphemy.
Though the Qur’an nowhere specifically mentions the punishment of blasphemy or who will award such punishment, but punishing an alleged blasphemer by means of public justice in Pakistan is not only largely accepted, it is also justified by the majority of religious clerics of all the sects and by people belonging to all spheres of life.
The inclusion of section 295-B and 295-C in PPC punishable with imprisonment for life and death penalty respectively, comes without specifying the deriving source of the said provisions. For Islamic law, the Qur’an and Hadith are the primary sources to derive from. The Qur’an as well as Hadith does not explicitly describe the punishment for blasphemy.
Islam as was preached by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), his companions, religious scholars and their disciples taught peace, tolerance, harmony, coexistence and respect of others’ views. But now the so-called torchbearers of Islam have made it a religion of their own convenience. They change the interpretations as and when they feel the need.
The example of a lady throwing garbage in the way of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and many other instances tell that how much more tolerant, patient and forgiving the last Messenger of Allah was.
The events related to this incident mention a neighbor of the Prophet (PBUH) who tried her best to irritate Him by throwing garbage in His way every day. One day, when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) walked out of His house, there was no garbage. This made the Prophet (PBUH) inquire about the old woman and He came to know that she was sick. The Prophet (PBUH) went to visit her and offered any assistance she might need. The old woman was extremely humbled and at the same time ashamed of her actions in light of the concern and patience that the Prophet (PBUH) showed her.
The unfortunate practice of public justice in blasphemy cases strips off the alleged blasphemer the right to prove his innocence. It is often used to settle the property, debt and personal disputes. Sometimes it is even an effective tool in the business and professional rivalry.
Even an allegation of blasphemy in Pakistan is an indirect death warrant and the accused always carries the risk of getting killed any time without going through the due course of law. Usually in such cases, mob justice is orchestrated by igniting the public sentiment against a particular individual, group, sect, or religion which ends up with the killing of the alleged blasphemer, the torching of the properties and holy places of the other sect or religion. The courts may also award death penalty or life imprisonment — though very rare. If the accused is lucky to have enough monetary sources, then a lifelong and self imposed exile far away from Pakistan is the best option.
As per penal laws in Pakistan, blasphemy is not the only crime which prescribes the death penalty. Murder is also one of the crimes that is punished either with death or life sentence. But owing to the strong religious sentiment involved in issues of blasphemy which can be further exploited by numerous interests, it has a way stronger tendency to lead to the public or mob justice.
In past attempts were made to amend the law, but all went in vain given the sensitivity of the issue. Before the law could be amended or repealed, it is imperative to change the public mindset in a way that every accused — including an alleged blasphemer — is innocent until proven guilty. The growing trend of falsely implicating others in blasphemy for settling personal scores is still awaiting legislative redress. Just like a baseless allegation of rape is an offense, a false allegation of blasphemy needs to be followed by an equal punishment of the crime so alleged. Unless the mentality of the masses is reshaped, the alleged blasphemer will be condemned to death by public even if its punishment is reduced to two years only.