In defence of the defiant

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on December 14, 2018

A heavy burden: The daughters of Asia Bibi pose with an image of their mother outside their residence in Pakistan’s Punjab province   -  REUTERS/ ADREES LATIF

Asia Bibi’s case illustrates how blasphemy laws privilege an article of faith over human life

There is a significant difference between the parameters of the impermissible in the Indian and the Pakistani penal codes. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) doesn’t directly prohibit the reviling of its people’s gods. What needs protecting, and defending, are the sensitivities of the adherents, which it does, via its laws against hate speeches. Section 295 of the IPC states that those who deliberately offend religious beliefs will be fined, or jailed, or both.

In Pakistan, this section stands trifurcated. A truncated version of the above forms 295A; 295B involves the wilful defiling of theQuran (punishable by imprisonment for life); 295C relates to derogatory remarks, spoken, written, directly or indirectly to defile the name of Prophets. Added by an act of Parliament (under former Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq), this carries a mandatory death penalty.

On October 31, Asia Bibi, a 43-year-old Christian, mother of two, wife of a labourer, and a daily wager herself, was acquitted of the charge of blasphemy by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. There were violent reprisals in almost all major cities of Pakistan, fermented largely by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam. They ordered their members to choke the cities and block airports and railways. By evening, Afzal Qadri (of the TLP) was exhorting (in public) the security guards, drivers and cooks of the supreme court judges to kill them, and calling on the Muslim rank and file in the army to revolt against the ‘Ahmadi’ Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

So how did Asia Bibi become Gustakh-e-Rasool (Blasphemer of the Prophet)? In her official account, she mentions a quarrel in a field in Ittanwali, where a group of women were plucking phalsa berries. The Muslim women refused to drink water from the cup used by her, called her a Chuhda Musali (of a polluting caste) and an unclean Christian, which escalated into an altercation and a shouting match. The Muslim women alleged that Asia had used foul language against the Prophet. Five days later, she was dragged to a public gathering of about a thousand people, including a bunch of Ulemas and Imams, where she reportedly confessed her guilt. She was arrested on the same day. In her recorded statement, she said that the charge against her was fabricated; she had not insulted the Prophet. During her trial, she stated that a confession was made under duress as the mob there was threatening to kill her.

About a year later, in 2010, the trial court in Sheikhupura sentenced her to death by hanging. The decision was appealed against, but the death sentence was upheld by the Lahore High Court. In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who was lobbying for a Presidential pardon for Asia, was assassinated by his own security guard. Within two months, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minority affairs minister — the only Christian member of the Pakistan Cabinet — who was also crusading for Asia’s release, was gunned down.

On October 31, the date of Asia’s acquittal by the Supreme Court, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the demagogue-in-chief of the TLP, addressed the mobs in frenzied tones. The Chief Justice, he said, was mocking the faith of Muslims. October 31 is not just any date. It is the date on which Ilmuddin was martyred. Ilmuddin, in 1929, had stabbed and killed Mahashe Rajpal, the publisher of Rangeela Rasool, a book ridiculing the Prophet. Ilmuddin was tried and convicted, and then executed on October 31.

Rajpal, earlier, had been convicted under section 153A, which criminalised incitement of hatred (and causing enmity against religious, racial or caste groups).

His conviction, after an appeal, was reversed by the Lahore High Court. Even as the judge agreed that Rangeela Rasool was a “scurrilous satire”, he took the view that 153A did not apply to “deceased religious personages” and suggested that the government consider enacting another provision to introduce a new clause. Thus was born, in the subcontinent, section 295.

The thing about blasphemy is that in its replay and broadcast lies the possibility of reblaspheming. The specifics are almost never to be repeated. Perhaps also because the masses might judge for themselves the difference between scurrility and criticism, and realise that the beginnings of their emancipation lie in their ability to question authority.

That speaking evil of sacred matters is an abuse of freedom is a settled affair. But this settled affair is the real abomination. That there can be a blasphemy law, that the mere utterance of something, no matter how vile, is punishable with the decree of death. That an article of faith is more sacred, under law, than the life of a fellow human.

For is it not that every case of blasphemy, real or purported, scurrilous or not, an instance where the mind of the accused has not yielded to the evidence that has convinced others to believe that a certain religion is of divine origin?

To borrow from James Madison, if that is an offence against God, then to God and not to man should an account of it be rendered.


Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer


Published on December 14, 2018

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