weeks after Pakistani Christian Asia Naureen (usually referred to as Asia
Bibi), whose ordeal over false blasphemy charges attracted international
attention, was allowed to leave the country, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws claimed
veterinary doctor, Ramesh Kumar, was arrested in Sindh province on May 27 after
a local cleric filed a police complaint accusing him of committing blasphemy.
Mr. Kumar’s village Phulhadiyon, in Mirpurkhas district, has a population of
about 7,000 people, the majority of whom are Hindus. As is often the case when
blasphemy allegations are made in Pakistan, riots broke out in the area and an
angry mob burnt down Mr. Kumar’s establishment as well as other property
belonging to him and his family. The mob also tried to attack the police
station and caused some damage in the process. Although six suspects were soon
taken into custody for rioting and damaging the vet’s property, it is Mr.
Kumar’s family that will now be living in fear while his prosecution meanders
through Pakistan’s judicial system.
experience highlights the difficult path ahead for Mr. Kumar. Her relocation to
Canada does not reflect substantive change in the persecuted state of
Pakistan’s religious minorities. Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws remain in
force, and there is no sign that the authorities plan to drop prosecution of
hundreds of blasphemy cases.
and 2012, Pakistani authorities prosecuted 1,170 people for blasphemy. That
number has only increased over the years. The Pakistani legal system offers
little protection to someone charged with blasphemy and mere accusation is
tantamount to punishment. Judges and lawyers fear religious vigilantes who
violently attack anyone they deem to be supporting a blasphemer.
Taseer, Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was killed by his own bodyguard
in 2011 for supporting reconsideration of blasphemy laws; the judge who
convicted his murderer had to flee the country; and a shrine was built for the
assassin after his execution.
case attracted international attention. She was an unlettered berry-picker
convicted by a Pakistani court of insulting Prophet Mohammed after being framed
by neighbours who objected to her, as a Christian, drinking water from the same
glass as them. She was sentenced to death for her comments in response to her
neighbours’ mistreatment. Support from church-goers and human rights defenders
around the world meant that the U.S. government and the Pope paid attention to
her case. Parallel efforts were initiated by the EU’s Special Envoy for Freedom
of Religion or Belief to secure her release.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court decided to hear her appeal after having ignored it for
years. She had spent more than eight years in solitary confinement before being
acquitted by the Supreme Court in October 2018. But Islamist groups took to the
streets to protest that decision, and a review petition against her release was
put in to block the Supreme Court’s decision. Even after the review petition
was dismissed, Ms. Bibi remained under ‘protective custody’ at an unknown
location. Eventually, pressure from Western governments and the Vatican,
coupled with threats of EU sanctions at a time when Pakistan sought its
thirteenth bailout from the International Monetary Fund in three decades,
all-powerful military and the civilian government installed last year are
obsessed with improving Pakistan’s international image, without really changing
its reality. They wanted Ms. Bibi’s flight to safety to be projected as
reflecting a change in Pakistan’s treatment of its minorities. It is nothing of
the sort, as the persecution of Mr. Kumar amply indicates.
Bibi, Mr. Kumar is unlikely to have the support of Western governments and the
Vatican. Any action by Hindu organisations in India or abroad on his behalf
will only be misrepresented in Pakistan’s officially directed media as part of
the ‘ongoing conspiracies’ against the country that are used as an excuse to
maintain Pakistan’s semi-authoritarian power structure.
was eventually smuggled out of Pakistan. Those who fought for her freedom for
over eight years rejoiced in a way usually reserved for a member of one’s own
family. We all hope that she may know peace and happiness for her remaining
life abroad. But we must not forget that, without major reform in its legal and
political environment, Pakistan continues to have one of the worst track
records in protecting its religious minorities.
Hindus, and Ahmadi Muslims continue to face persecution and the country’s
blasphemy laws, under which Ms. Bibi was targeted, enable that repression.
Blasphemy charges are filed routinely by Islamist extremists for political
gain, by neighbours for revenge over a slight, and sometimes even by corrupt
landlords for advantage in property disputes.
blasphemy laws, which date back to the military dictatorship of General
Zia-ul-Haq, have only encouraged the unleashing of extremist religious frenzy.
According to an Amnesty International report, the mere accusation of blasphemy
is tantamount to punishment. Several cases illustrate that point.
Hafeez, a visiting lecturer of English at Bahauddin Zakaria University in
Multan, has been in prison for the last six years after being accused of
blasphemy by Islamist student activists. He was charged because he invited a
speaker to a seminar who had allegedly “penned blasphemous passages in her
dropped him as a client after being mobbed by over 200 fellow lawyers; when
human rights defender Rashid Rehman took up his case, he was shot dead in his
office. The killer has never been apprehended and judges do not want to hear
the case, which has been transferred from one court since 2013.
Pakistan’s religious minorities to feel safe, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws must be
tackled, amended or removed as a crucial first step. After that, or alongside,
must begin the decades-long process of removing the seed of hatred sowed soon
after the death of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. That would involve
an effort of mammoth proportions starting with the defanging of terrorist
groups, changing school curriculum, and banning hate speech in all public
venues. Political and religious leaders as well as the mass media must become a
partner in confronting hate. So far, it seems that they would rather benefit
from spreading the poison of communal hatred than confronting it.
Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of Pakistan’s
Parliament, is author of ‘Purifying The Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious
Minorities’. She is Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington,
DC and Senior Fellow of the Religious Freedom Institute