Getting away with murder

  • Can a ‘tabdeeli’ come against misuse of blasphemy law?

A young artist living away from his city is killed. There is no mention in the news. About three weeks later, accusations of blasphemy charges appear. This time, the gory incident makes it to the headlines – also across the border, with social media on the forefront. Protests erupt around his native town. The reality behind the accusations remain murky, but certain on the society’s surface: to murder or get away with murder or to even demand a hearing, invoking the blasphemy law works best in Pakistan.

Qutub Rind, an artist from Sindh living in Lahore to attend an art show, was murdered last month by the land owner of his flat over an issue of rental payment. The police claims this to be the only motive. However, one of the suspects has been alleged by Rind’s relatives of making false accusation of blasphemy, quoting as the real reason behind the murder. While many in support of Qutub have come forward to vouch for his ‘Sufi’ spirit, improbable to act blasphemous, the allegation itself is shrouded in mystery. Apparently, the murderers attempted to concoct a blasphemy charge in an attempt to sanctify their crime. Whether the security officials clarified that there was no blasphemy charge to avoid misconception or to protect the assailants in view of growing anger instead of sympathy against them, also remains unknown.

But the very word – blasphemy – acted as a magnet. Jibran Nasir, activist and an independent candidate running for a National Assembly seat known for his views against the misuse of religion based laws, specially the blasphemy law, took to social media to air his findings. Writer Fatima Bhutto demanded justice for Qutub’s murder on false blasphemy charges. Journalists, fellow artists all came out in support. It appears that the accused’s intention of getting away with murder by playing the blasphemy card acted on the contrary. However, it sadly projected the flimsy and superficial regard we hold for law and religion. It strengthened the belief that a brutal murder may be treated as just another incident, unless it is tagged with something more attention grabbing. This was evident by lack of any show of empathy by Rind’s fellow artists who must be aware of his tragic death, but did not protest his cold blooded murder by a drug addict until the blasphemy charge surfaced. It clearly shows the false emotions we attach to the love of our Holy Prophet (pbuh), for if a law can be expanded to punish an act which violates his sanctity in particular, it can also be misused to justify a criminal act. This means that the name of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) is untruthfully invoked in a situation where there was probably no mention of him. If this is not an example of blasphemy, what else is?

In 1986, after many heated debates and show of emotions, death penalty was added to the proposed anti-blasphemy law of that time, Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. The then minister of state for justice and parliamentary affairs, Mir Nawaz Khan Marwat, had declared: ‘In my opinion with this (amendment) adequate sentence has been made for blasphemers and in future no one will dare to commit blasphemy of the Holy Prophet.’ Yet 30 years later, the opposite seems to be true. The very next year in 1987, when the penal code was passed and made into a law after presidential approval, 13 cases against alleged blasphemy were filed. In the years, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2014, the figure crossed 100. Not only cases continued where accusations involving blasphemy were hurled, an increasing and disturbing trend emerged of these accusations stemming from a reason to settle scores or personal vengeance. Since blasphemy charges are not investigated like other charges, accusers saw it as an easily justified motive to send someone behind bars and ensure that the victim stays there.

In 1986, after many heated debates and show of emotions, death penalty was added to the proposed anti-blasphemy law of that time, Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code

Asia Bibi is one of the most prominent examples of a victim of false accusation involving a blasphemy charge. It’s been more than a decade since she was convicted and despite much sympathy, is languishing in jail. Former minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti and former governor Punjab Salman Taseer were meted out with death blows by religious extremists for supporting her release. The murderer of Taseer, his own security guard, was promptly nabbed and hanged to death, but lives on as a ‘martyr’ in the illiterate minds of people. His picture even garnered votes this election. His grave has been converted to a mausoleum still thronged by devotees and no one in the country has the courage to raze the undeserving tribute.

On the other hand, Mashal Khan, another victim of a false accusation killed too early before his bright ideas and courageous self could add to the nation’s strength, rests in a simple grave in his hometown, shaded by a grove of poplar trees. His case is also still pending in the court, with only a handful of assailants from a mob of over 60 behind bars for publicly lynching Mashal to death.

As a journalist and a writer, I am often advised not to write on blasphemy. People dread to be associated with the issue, for the very word means death for a person who is involved. Blasphemy cases have been reported to be either rushed hurriedly in criminal courts, with the nervous judge signing off the death penalty for the accused, whether true or false, to save his own neck from the ire of zealots, or are hushed up with decisions pending for years.

But if a blasphemy charge can be levied on a person by anyone and punishment can be awarded without thorough investigation, why isn’t action taken when it is proved that the accusation made was false? Why isn’t the same blasphemy charge and it’s punishment given to a person who is proved to have invoked the law falsely for personal reasons? Why do the authorities not realise that misuse of the law is more prevalent than prevention of inciting incidents, the primary reason for which the original colonial law was amended?

Qutub Rind, a budding artist is brutally murdered. The culprit, in order to save his own life, has possibly made a false accusation of blasphemy. Now he seems to have retracted, the police has denied the charge, but the damage has been done. Rind has lost his life, his promising work remains unfinished. The media hype has crossed borders. The only positive outcome has been the failure of the assailant to wrongly justify his criminal act. But justice would truly be imparted if he is duly punished for both the crime and an attempt for its false cover up, or else, the society would continue to use religion to provoke emotions, to settle a case and to get away with murder, like it has in the past.