By Shivani Baghel
Edited by Namrata Caleb, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
“Pakistan mob kills Christian couple over blasphemy” read the BBC headlines this morning on my news feed.
A Christian couple was thrashed and burned alive by an angry mob in Pakistan’s Punjab province for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Holy Quran. Blasphemy and the draconian laws dealing with it are highly sensitive issues in Pakistan. Although, blasphemy has been controversial ever since, it caught fire when Rhimsha Masih- an eleven year old from Islamabad was arrested by the Pakistani police in 2012 and potentially faced the death penalty for blasphemy under Pakistan’s blasphemy law for allegedly desecrating pages of the Quran by burning. Aasia Bibi, has been on death row since November 2010 after she was found guilty of making blasphemous remarks about Prophet Muhammad during a quarrel with a Muslim woman. The following January Punjab Governor Salman Taseer – a prominent critic of the law – was assassinated by his bodyguard.
The offences relating to religion were first codified by India’s British rulers in 1860, which Pakistan inherited after the partition of 1947. Between 1980 and 1986, a number of clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq. He wanted to “Islamicise” them and separate the Ahmadis. The blasphemy laws were created and expanded in several installments. In 1980, a clause was added to the law, making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages an offence, carrying a maximum punishment of three years in jail. Another clause prescribed life imprisonment for “wilful” desecration of the Quran. Further, a separate clause was inserted to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad and the penalty recommended was “death, or imprisonment for life”, in that order.
A large majority of Pakistani people support the idea that blasphemers should be punished, but there is little understanding of what the religious scripture says as opposed to how the modern-day law is codified.The response to recent events suggests that they largely believe the law, as codified by the military regime of General Zia-ul Haq back in the 1980s, to be straight out of the Quran and therefore not man-made.The organized religious groups are promoting this view and have been able to mobilize mass support in their favor. Their highest point came when the assassin of Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 was hailed as a hero by a large section of people across the country.
Talking of India, there are no specific blasphemy laws as such. However, there are hate speech laws. The constitution entitles everybody the freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess practice and propagate any religion. However, they allow a citizen to seek the punishment of anyone who shows him disrespect “on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever”. The laws specifically forbid anyone from outraging someone’s “religious feelings”.
India is a land of Religion. Almost everything sells in the name of it. In such a scenario, secluding blasphemy from India would not be a perfect idea. There would be thousands of examples worth quoting from history, with the recent one being from Kashmir. The city court has issued warrants against two columnist associated with a magazine for publication of pictures of Holy Mecca on a pack of cards. The case pertains to blasphemous publication by a New Delhi magazine against which people staged large scale protest in Kashmir, leaving several injured.
In August, A Bangalore based writer Yogesh Master has been arrested over his derogatory remarks on Lord Ganesha, in his Kannada novel Dhundi. A complaint was lodged at Police Station by various Hindu groups who blamed him of blasphemy and hurting religious sentiments.
Ban on Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’, along with movies like Jodha Akbar, is a classic example of blasphemy and violation of freedom of speech in India. Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya- a tribute to India’s first modern art painter Raja Ravi Verma, faced similar charges and was delayed its release for almost five years. Mehta cites this film as his way of standing up for creative freedom. Raja Ravi Verma’s life itself is termed as a single road with two stops of blasphemy and tradition. He has faced social wrath for giving a human face to Hindu gods and goddesses. Over the decades, artists have faced such attacks, be it the legendary MF Husain too. Venues have been vandalized, artworks mutilated and their creators have been beaten up.
Not to say that blasphemy is a thing of East, a lot of Hollywood movies have also fallen prey to blasphemy in the West. 2014 released Noah was blamed to have fundamentally changed an entire story of Bible, Da Vinci Code had church groups across the globe protesting whereas movie like The Last Temptation of Christ was claimed to portray Jesus as a deeply flawed, and humane individual getting tempted by earthly desires. This enraged the Christians worldwide and was marked by a violent outburst at a theatre in Paris.
Blasphemy is a very subjective term and can be interpreted and misinterpreted in different ways. Some may find it truly offensive, others may not. Where can we set the bar? There has to be an arbitrary line. This is the problem.
Floating through the 21st century, blasphemy laws can be classified as a social regressive step. They reject the philosophical developments gained since the enlightenment which encouraged a break-away from religious stereotypes; developments which have distinctively helped to make this world a more fair and free space. Shielding the sensibilities of people over the freedom of speech prevents societal advancements, favoring the status quo rather than taking efforts to improve a level of things all together. Exchange of individual ideas and opinions mark the onset of a changing society.
However, isolating the core of blasphemy or hate speech laws cannot be termed as absolute righteousness. In a globalized and multicultural society where different creeds and viewpoints exist, social harmony is fundamentally indispensable. These laws are instrumental in making the co-existence of diverse opinions possible. These laws can get people to consider the cultural differences as positive and hold respect for them rather than remaining single-minded and bigoted towards other people’s cultural and spiritual views and behavior. Ironically, Salman Rushdie himself was quoted as, “Where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy”
The act of violence and feisty should absolutely be condemned but freedom of speech and expression should also be idealized. If only this utopian ideology could be achieved, the world would not be headed towards Satan today!
“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from judgment” perfectly explains blasphemy.
Shivani Baghel is a true Piscean at heart and likes calling herself a Dreamer! Although an introvert, she is an absolute fun loving girl once you get to know her. She loves being an Agony Aunt as she says, “nothing gives me more happiness than helping others”. Her loved ones describe her as trustworthy and honest. She prefers spending her weekends lazing around in a corner, hooked up to a novel, sipping some green tea besides her window. A foodie that she is, exploring and discovering new places around her world fascinates her. She dreams of travelling the world around and writing something unique of each place. She loves doodling random thoughts at random places. Although she calls herself a big procrastinator, she knows for a fact, that no one can nail it the way she does at the last moment. Shivani firmly believes that wearing rose colored glasses can bring you happiness for today and aspirations for tomorrow, and hence doesn’t care a bit when people ask her to get a reality check! After all, only those who have the courage to dream it can achieve it.