When you prescribe one of the sternest of punishments available under law for an eight-year-old child in the name of religion, there is something terribly wrong somewhere.
When that child is booked for a deliberate act of blasphemy — a concept which he is too young to even make a faint sense of — there is something terribly wrong somewhere.
Then when a mob goes on the rampage, egged on by a rabid, venom-spewing cleric following the release of the child on bail and vandalises a Hindu temple, it is beyond doubt that there is something terribly wrong somewhere.
The problem is with the blasphemy laws in Pakistan that have been condemned all across the world, even by nations that Pakistan have tended to consider its sympathisers – those nations that have been only too eager to attack India by drumming up fear of Hindu supremacist designs even where they have been non-existent. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have received strident flak from Pakistanis too.
The case in question occurred in Bhong village in Rahim Yar Khan district of Pakistan’s Punjab. In July 2021, an eight-year-old Hindu boy inadvertently entered a madrassa that was attached to a mosque, as per this report by a Pakistan-based journalist, Veengas. A maulvi, Hafiz Mohammed Ibrahim, noticed the boy. Frightened, he boy urinated in his pants.
The heartless cleric then went on and lodged a police complaint stating that the child had intentionally urinated on the carpet of the madrassa library, thereby desecrating religious books and hurting religious sentiments. As per a report by The Dawn, the case was filed on 24 July.
The eight-year-old thus became the youngest to be charged with blasphemy in volatile Pakistan. He was slapped with Section 295-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, which carries imprisonment up to 10 years for “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class by words, or by visible representations.” Blasphemy charges can even lead to death penalty.
On 4 August, a mob attacked a Hindu temple in the colony where the boy lived amid a hundred Hindu families. The mob streamed the attack live on Facebook. They barged into the temple premises, broke open the gates, smashed the idols, kicked at things lying around and burnt the temple door.
Reports said the mob was enraged at the boy getting bail from a local court earlier in the day.
Watch the video of the attack here.
The charges against the boy were later dropped following widespread criticism and pressure. “The charges against the boy were baseless,” Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, special representative of the prime minister on religious harmony, was quoted as saying by The Guardian in a report published on 12 August. He added that the police officers, who had taken action against the child, had been arrested.
The vandalised temple has since been repaired by the government, and 20 people arrested in connection with the temple attack. The culprits were ordered by the local administration to pay for repairing the temple, The Guardian report said. Troops had to be deployed in the area to prevent any further worsening of the situation.
The boy’s father had apologised to the Muslim community following the madrassa incident. After the temple attack, the Hindu families fled the area in fear. Some reports said the mob attacked the Hindu houses and shops too.
A member of the boy’s family told The Guardian: “He is not even aware of such blasphemy issues and he has been falsely indulged in these matters. He still doesn’t understand what his crime was and why he was kept in jail for a week.
“We have left our shops and work, the entire community is scared and we fear backlash. We don’t want to return to this area. We don’t see any concrete and meaningful action will be taken against the culprits or to safeguard the minorities living here.”
Blasphemy charges routinely misused against minorities and children
The minorities of Pakistan — Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Baha’is among others — have time and again been the target of violent attacks. They have been harassed through blasphemy laws. Their places of worship have been desecrated, destroyed and vandalised. There have been numerous cases of forced conversions of Hindu, Sikh and Christian girls.
Over the past 18 months, as many as eight temples have reportedly been attacked or damaged. Even when the Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken cognisance of these issues, the culprits have tended to go scot-free in many cases.
Children have time and again been at the receiving end of blasphemy accusations in Pakistan, even for such absurd reasons as making an Urdu spelling mistake in an Islamiat class or ‘liking’ a picture of Kaaba on Facebook. A 12-year-old girl suffering from Down’s Syndrome was not spared and was accused by a local imam of desecrating the Holy Quran. She was booked and arrested by the police.
“Strongly condemn attack on Ganesh Mandir in Bhung, RYK yesterday. I have already asked IG Punjab to ensure arrest of all culprits & take action against any police negligence. The govt will also restore the Mandir,” Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted after Bhong incident.
The Indian foreign ministry summoned a Pakistani diplomat and lodged a protest against the temple attack in and demanded safety of Hindu families living in Pakistan.
“Minorities are equal citizens and these are illiterate people attacking worship places. Our Islam does not allow attacking of any other religion’s places of worship,” Ashrafi was quoted as saying by The Guardian.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are notorious across the world
However, despite these overt displays of concern by the authorities, the Pakistani establishment has not been too keen to reform the blasphemy laws. Attacks on minorities and their places of worship have also continued unchecked. A high court judgment in Pakistan had asked for legislation to punish those who make false allegations. The government, however, withdrew the bill from the Senate in 2018, as per this article by Pakistani journalist Naila Inayat. While no one making false allegations of blasphemy has ever been punished in Pakistan, those facing allegations have spent as many as 20 years in jail, often for no fault of theirs, Inayat says in her report.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been criticised across the world. A European Union resolution says, “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are increasingly used for personal or political score-settling in violation of the rights to freedom of religion and belief and of opinion and expression”. This was reported by The Dawn.
The EU resolution added that the situation in Pakistan “continued to deteriorate in 2020 as the government systematically enforced blasphemy laws and failed to protect religious minorities from abuses by non-state actors, with a sharp rise in targeted killings, blasphemy cases, forced conversions, and hate speech against religious minorities including Ahmadis, Shia Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs; whereas abduction, forced conversion to Islam, rape and forced marriage remained an imminent threat for religious minority women and children in 2020, particularly those from the Hindu and Christian faiths”.
The EU Parliament recommended a review of the GSP+ status granted to Pakistan in view of the “alarming” rise in blasphemy accusations. Pakistan had benefited from trade preferences under the GSP+ programme since 2014. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists have slammed the attack on minorities. “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have long been abused to target minority groups, but this case marks a shocking and extreme departure,” Amnesty International said, referring to the Bhong case.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedoms pointed out that Pakistan reported the highest number of instances of mob activity, mob violence, and/or threats of mob violence as a result of alleged blasphemy, according to a Guardian report.
A brief history of blasphemy laws in Pakistan
The blasphemy laws in Pakistan and India trace their origins to British rule. The former colonial masters had introduced a set of laws related to religion in 1860 to curb Hindu-Muslim violence in the Indian subcontinent. The laws were strengthened in 1927 with the addition of a clause criminalising “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious believers”.
The laws were made stricter in independent Pakistan at the behest of the religious right-wing. Still, until the later part of the 1970s, the use of these laws remained rare. General Zia-ul-Haq strengthened these laws between 1980 and 1986. Five new clauses were added, all relating to criminalising offences like defiling the Holy Quran, insulting Prophet Mohammad or using “derogatory” language against certain other religious figures. Zia-ul-Haq’s rule from 1977-1988 saw blasphemy cases shooting up, with as many as 80 cases being recorded during that period, according to the Centre for Research and Security Studies.
A higher Sharia court decision in 1991 made death penalty mandatory for the crime of insulting the Prophet. Between 2011 and 2015, blasphemy cases in Pakistan numbered nearly 1,300.
The blasphemy laws have come to assume a sacred character, though according to experts, there is no clear definition of ‘blasphemy’ in Islamic jurisprudence and also, there is no consensus on the punishment for it. The blasphemy laws in Pakistan are some of the sternest in the Islamic world and leave even comparable ones in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia and Afghanistan behind.
What the recent Bhong incident tells us about ‘Naya Pakistan’
The issue around blasphemy laws in Pakistan goes hand in hand with that of attack on minorities. Following the Bhong incident, Pakistan’s leading English newspapers The Dawn and The News International have drawn attention to the dangerous radicalisation underway in the country.
Experts say that blasphemy laws, the plight of minorities, religious extremism and orthodoxy all point towards a society that is far removed from the one promised by Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
In a crucial address to the Constituent Assembly three days before the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Jinnah said, “You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
The speech did not go down well with the powerful religious ideologues in Pakistan, who then ensured that it was not covered in the next day’s newspapers, a BBC report says. Successive military governments in Pakistan have sought to downplay the speech and even erase it from official records.
Jinnah’s statement was completely at odds with the anti-India, anti-Hindu, Islamic state that the religious and political elites in Pakistan were comfortable with.
It is the same sentiment that led to the 2011 assassination of the former governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, who was campaigning against the country’s blasphemy laws. Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri was hailed as a hero and even a saint by certain religious hardliners. Almost a century earlier, a Hindu book publisher and an Arya Samaji, Mahashay Rajpal, was murdered for a book on Prophet by a 19-year-old ma, Ilm-ud-din. Today, he is hailed as a ‘Ghazi’ in Pakistan and has roads named after him.
It is the same sentiment that led to a child being victimised and a temple vandalised in Bhong. It is this sentiment that makes Pakistan a powder keg. It is another reason why Pakistan is considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world.