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By Nasim Zehra
Published: February 5, 2011
Last week in our Senate, two revealing incidents took place. One, the refusal of a senator to lead the fateha for the assassinated Governor Salmaan Taseer. Second, a privilege motion moved by Senator Mandokhel, calling upon the deputy chairman of the Senate to declare a Pakistani woman a blasphemer because, in a text message, she had referred to the late governor as shaheed. Mandokhel sahib’s contention is that since Salmaan Taseer was a blasphemer, anyone calling him shaheed is also a blasphemer. On February 3, responding to the senator’s insistence that the chairman Senate give a ruling on the matter, the chairman said he would do so later. The Senate session was then prorogued.
In the last few weeks, new blasphemy cases have been filed, one of them against a first-year student. The 17-year-old, reported to the police for writing something blasphemous on his examination paper, is now in prison. Also, last week a sessions court handed down a death sentence, along with a Rs200,000 fine, to a man of Jalalpur Peerwala for committing blasphemy. The accused was reportedly mentally challenged.
Against the backdrop of these incidents, a factual review of the developments that took place after PPP MNA Sherry Rehman proposed the initial bill, alongside initial government moves to review Article 295, is essential. Of course, the current outcome of this move has been that the prime minister has announced the withdrawal of Ms Rehman’s bill.
The new aspect to the prime minister’s February 3 announcement was that he had consulted Ms Rehman and that she had agreed to withdraw her bill. Her statement, however, indicates that it was more or less a unilateral move by the prime minister but that she would abide by it because of party discipline. More importantly, as she explained, the withdrawal announcement was unnecessary since the bill had not even been tabled. What is truly ironic is that in the same statement in which the prime minister announced the withdrawal of the bill, he invited various political parties to come forward and discuss ways on how to prevent misuse of the existing law — which is precisely what Ms Rehman’s proposed amendment bill was seeking to address.
Meanwhile, of the many developments that took place after the sessions court’s judgment against Aasia Bibi, six are especially noteworthy.
The first is that while human rights groups have been working on the issue of misuse of the blasphemy law for years, it was when the PPP-led government announced a committee to amend the laws that Ms Rehman tabled her bill. She shared it with all party leaders and made it a point to inform the chief whip of the government of her plans — and he did not ask her to hold off for a while. She consulted with several lawyers about the bill and did not submit it in secret. The proposed amendment created a wave of awareness that has finally led everyone (including the Council of Islamic Ideology) to concede that changes are required to end the existing law’s misuse. Even the religious parties have taken this position of reform repeatedly in various forums. All this contradicts the claims of those who now hold the view that the introduction of this bill was an ill-timed move.
Two, the government blundered along, making contradictory moves and statements on the issue of amending the blasphemy law ever since Aasia Bibi’s conviction. They set up a committee to review it and created a parliamentary subcommittee headed by MNA Nafisa Shah. But at the first whiff of criticism by other groups, the law minister announced that the amendment will take place “over my dead body”.
On one hand, the Punjab governor, when he was alive, criticised the law and lobbied for Aasia’s presidential pardon while on the other, the same government’s law and interior ministers were saying quite the opposite. Instead of ironing out these stark contradictions, the departure of the JUI from the coalition convinced the government that backtracking on the amendment would buy it survival security. Hence, Sherry Rehman’s bill was not a victim of bad timing but, in fact, a victim of the PPP’s bad politics.
Three, every backtracking move by the government emboldened those who equated amendment of the man-made law with blasphemy. Parties like the PTI, the PML-N and the PML-Q have become actively engaged in street protests organised by the ‘religious right’ that are shadow-boxing with imaginary blasphemers.
Four, in pursuit of what the government believes to be survival-mode politics, the government and the PPP have practically abandoned Sherry Rehman. She has been provided some security outside her house but no government ministers have spoken in parliament against the death threats that she has been receiving. Almost no one has spoken for her at other public forums either. The government has not opted to be part of her defence in the Lahore High Court where there is a case demanding that she be disbarred from parliament. She is also involved, again unsupported by the PPP, in a blasphemy case in Multan.
Five, the big names of the legal community who led the lawyers’ movement seem to have opted for selective commitment to rule of law by not taking a clear-cut position to stand by Sherry Rehman — barring exceptions like Salman Akram Raja and Hina Jilani. Six, against the backdrop of increasing cases of blasphemy being registered — against a student, a doctor and a Dera Ghazi Khan imam and his son — Ms Rehman stands vindicated on both the call for amending the existing law and on the timing of such a proposed amendment.
The government’s blundering over amending Article 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code will qualify as a textbook example of how expedient politics can take nations down a path of disaster. Clearly, in the Senate, the chairman has found it difficult to give a ruling against Senator Mandokhel’s incredible demand that an activist be denounced as a blasphemer. Equally incredible is the imprisonment of a 17-year-old on blasphemy charges. And, not least of all, the news that no one is representing the prosecution in the court as the case of Governor Salmaan Taseer’s murder proceeds is shocking.
In the coming days, it is not unlikely that, led by the short-sighted politics of the PPP and of other parliamentary parties, Pakistan’s politics and state will have, in fact, weakened the best Islamic values within Pakistan, undermined parliamentary politics and strengthened the constituency of those who want to see Pakistan turn into the Republic of Fear and Bigotry.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 6th, 2011.