The blasphemy law - Ikram Sehgal - Thursday, January 13, 2011

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Blasphemy laws in the South Asian Subcontinent are nothing new. While there was no concept of blasphemy in Hinduism, such laws in practice during the Moghul Era were repealed by the British colonial to allow Christian missionaries to proselytise. However, in 1860 the commission chaired by Lord Macaulay made the law again part of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as Section 295, which gave protection to places of worship, scriptures and personages of all religions of India. Sections 295-A and 295-B were inserted in 1927. These prescribed punishment for outraging the religious feelings of any class or religious group with deliberate and malicious intentions. On independence in 1947, this became part of Pakistan’s Penal Code (PPC). While blasphemy laws exist in many countries in the world, Pakistan perhaps has the strictest blasphemy laws even among Muslim-majority states.

Seeking to secure support among the middle class, and mainly among religious radicals, Gen Ziaul Haq accelerated the Islamisation process. Several new sections relating to religious offences were added to the PPC, almost all made by presidential decree. Inserted in 1980, Section 298-A made the use of derogatory remarks in respect of persons revered in Islam an offence punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment. This law was amended further in 1982, as 295-B, by presidential ordinance. The amendment extended it to defilement 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 for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”

In 1986, anything defiling the person of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was mad a criminal offence. Article 295-C read: “Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

The Federal Shariat Court (FSC) ruled in October 1990 that “the penalty for contempt of the Holy death, and nothing else,” and directed the federal government to effect the necessary legal changes in accordance with the ruling. (The decisions of the FSC, under Article 203-D of the Constitution, are binding on the government, which may, however, appeal against such decisions to the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court, whose decision is final.) When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not file an appeal against the FSC decision, the death penalty became mandatory for blasphemy.

Following protests by national and international human-rights organisations against what they perceived to be abuses of the blasphemy laws, Benazir Bhutto’s government intended in early 1994 to introduce two procedural changes to lessen the possibility of abuse of Section 295-C, a formal authorisation by a judicial magistrate being required before a complaint of blasphemy could be registered and arrests made. A false allegation of blasphemy would itself be made a criminal offence to be punished with up to seven years’ imprisonment.

Ms Bhutto, and later President Pervez Musharraf, were unable to bring even slight changes to the law. Hard-line religious leaders organised street protests and issued dire warnings against making any changes. Ms Bhutto, amid widespread strikes and protests across Pakistan against any changes to the blasphemy laws, backtracked on May 28, 1995, declaring that her government had only envisaged procedural changes, and added: “We will not amend the law.”

Controversy over the law flared up after MNA Sherry Rehman of the Pakistan People’s Party tabled a bill in November calling for end to the death penalty for blasphemy after Aasia Bibi, a Christian, was sentenced to hang. Aasia Bibi was arrested in June 2009 after Muslim women labourers refused to drink from a bowl of water that she was asked to fetch while working in the fields. Days later, the women complained that she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet (PBUH). Aasia Bibi was set upon by a mob, arrested by the police and sentenced. Sherry Rehman has been receiving death threats for speaking out. Politicians and conservative clerics have been at loggerheads over whether Aasia Bibi should be pardoned. Following Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani announced on Jan 9 that “we have no intentions to amend this law.”

There is nothing wrong with the blasphemy law, since it keeps our society from disintegrating into vigilantism. Moreover, it does not target non-Muslims alone, of the 647 or so brought to trial since 1991, less than 50 per cent were non-Muslims. Only a handful have been condemned to death, and no one has been executed. However, some have been murdered, being victims of “vigilante justice.” Unless the laws for bearing false witness are made stronger and effective, vigilante incidents like the brutal murder of Salmaan Taseer at the hands of his security guard will increase.

The PPC must introduce draconian punishments for bearing false witness. My article, “Perjury” (Feb 12, 2010), said that “giving false statements under oath is perjury plain and simple, and perjury is a punishable offence. The Oxford Dictionary defines perjury as ‘an act of wilfully telling an untruth when on oath,’ and goes on to use the words, ‘lying, mendacity, mendaciousness, falsification, deception, untruthfulness, dishonesty, duplicity.’ In simple terms, a perjurer is a criminal and must be treated as one.” In most countries, perjury carries exemplary punishment, ruthless enough for people to try and avoid giving a statement under oath lest that statement (or part thereof) be detected to be false.

To quote my article “Targeting perjury” (July 15, 2010), “in Pakistan the militants used the facade of religion in Swat... If the whole system is taken to be corrupt and the justice meted out to be unjust and unfair, frustration forces those seeking justice to take the law into their own hands. Loss of faith in the judicial system can become a very potent breeding ground for vigilantes. Social upheaval turning violent can spill over into the Pakistani heartland. In criminal trials, the punishment should be exactly what the accused would have got if the evidence had been held to be correct. If based on the statements of the witnesses committing perjury the accused would go to the gallows, shouldn’t those giving false evidence face the gallows themselves? The judge (or judges) must decide each case of perjury on merit and come down with a heavy hand against perjurers, as well as their manipulators and abettors.”

The punishment for perjury should be the same as the accused would have to face if the he (or she) were found guilty. We must avoid polarising society by fuelling the controversy of amending/changing the blasphemy laws. If the laws are made strong against bearing false witness, miscarriages of justice will not take place, and it will not be confined to blasphemy alone.

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email:

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