Pakistan has again witnessed violent backlash fuelled by allegations of blasphemy. The recent incident where a mob went on the rampage in Jaranwala, Faisalabad, setting fire to churches, attacking the homes of the Christian community and vandalising the local assistant commissioner’s office only underscores the country’s failure in upholding its fundamental duty of safeguarding its minorities and marginalised groups. The violence followed allegations of blasphemy, sparked by the alleged desecration of pages from the Koran near a house where two Christian brothers lived.
Amid rumours, the situation worsened with the involvement of members from the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), who shored up tensions by issuing public statements. The mob directed their aggression towards the home of the accused Christian brothers, which served as a catalyst for a series of violent occurrences.
Christian leaders condemned police inertia, asserting that officers stood inactive even as families sought assistance. Senior administrative and police officials intervened and were engaged in discussions with the protest leaders. Rangers were deployed and additional police personnel were dispatched, according to reports.
Amidst the chaos, a first information report was registered against the two Christian suspects. The incident’s repercussions gained censure, with the focus on what was perceived to be discriminatory conduct by the police in managing the situation. A senior police official was reassigned to special duty — a decision made in an attempt to address the demands of the protesting individuals who had been calling for his transfer.
Obviously, in Pakistan, the requirement for evidence loses significance when the focus shifts to blasphemy, thereby setting a path for acts of vigilante justice. This incident marks the second occurrence of an event of this nature in recent times. Just earlier, an English teacher in Balochistan was murdered following allegations of blasphemy. In February 2022, the brutal murder of priest William Siraj in Peshawar spread fear and outrage among Pakistan’s minority communities.
Resurgence of terror
Rising aggression against Pakistan’s minorities has been compounded by the revival of terrorist activities, a resurgence notably magnified by the Taliban’s seizure of authority in Kabul in 2021. Terrorist attacks in Pakistan have grown more severe over time, especially after the decision by the Pakistani Taliban’s (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan-TTP) to temporarily terminate a ceasefire with Islamabad in 2021. With the TTP’s confidence boosted by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, new waves of violence against minority groups in Pakistan have emerged.
There was a period when minorities comprised approximately 15% of the population in major cities. However, their representation has dwindled to less than 4% now. Among these minorities, Christians constitute a faction in this predominantly Sunni Muslim nation. On multiple occasions, accusations of blasphemy have resulted in both court judgments and violence targeting minority groups, including Christians. In September 2020, a Lahore court handed Asif Pervaiz, a young Christian, the death penalty for supposedly sending ‘text messages’ that had ‘blasphemous content.’ Pervaiz had already spent almost seven years in custody facing charges of blasphemy. There have been numerous instances where minorities such as the Ahmadis, Shias, and Christians have been accused of blasphemy. The case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, is widely known.
Numerous reports have highlighted the systematic failure of Pakistani courts to adequately safeguard and deliver justice to victims. In relation to the blasphemy regulations, a United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report, for instance, showed that the enforcement of these blasphemy laws positioned Pakistan as the foremost perpetrator of blasphemy-related prosecutions and communal aggression in the world.
The report further observed that Sections 295 and 298 of Pakistan’s Penal Code classify actions and utterances that insult the religion or desecrate the Koran, the Prophet, places of worship, or religious symbols as criminal offences. These ambiguous clauses are often exploited to unjustly accuse the Ahmadis, Shia Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and individuals holding beliefs differing from the predominant Sunni interpretation of Islam.
According to Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), religious minorities, including Christians, encounter profound discrimination in various Muslim-majority nations. However, no other country subjects Christians to such systematic and institutional persecution and victimisation as Pakistan, he said.
A conspicuous silence has pervaded the corridors of power, while blasphemy laws have been flaunted as instruments to settle personal scores, seize property, and intimidate minority factions. Amidst this backdrop, can one genuinely feign surprise as occurrences akin to the Jaranwala incident surface repeatedly? Employing violence under the guise of religion stands indefensible in any realm. Yet, within Pakistan, the manipulation of blasphemy laws has evolved into a shield for vested agendas, as the Dawn has noted in its editorial.
In any case, the litmus test for Pakistan as a democratic state lies in its ability to safeguard the rights of even its smallest minority. The country faces a critical moment, wherein the task at hand is to uphold its fledgling democratic structure in the face of challenges posed by the presence of a deep state, a complex civil society, and a praetorian state machinery.
K.M. Seethi, an Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) Senior Fellow, is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala