Saturday, May 31, 2014

The pre-history of anti-blasphemy activism in Pakistan // Raza Rumi: Pakistan's blasphemy law is used to fuel violence and death.

"As (Allama) Iqbal placed the body of Ilm Din into the grave, he tearfully declared: "This uneducated young man has surpassed us, the educated ones."

NB - These articles are courtesy the Brown Pundits blog:

The 1920’s in India witnessed the publishing of an inflammatory book vilifying Prophet Muhammad (SAW) thereby adding fuel to the existing Muslim/Hindu tensions. The British Raj ruled India and the creation of Pakistan was still a distant dream in the hearts of the Indian Muslims. The Muslim population was understandably incensed and mass protests were held. Prashaad Prataab had authored Rangeela Rasool (The Colourful Prophet), under the pen name of Pandit Chamupati Lal. The word rangeela means ‘colourful’ but can be understood in this context to mean ‘playboy’. [Nauzbillah]


NB: B.R. Ambedkar states that Rangila Rasool was written in response to the inflammatory pamphlet Sita ka chinalaPakistan or the Partition of India, (Chapter 9, footnote 29) -DS


Rajpal was a Hindu book publisher from Lahore. He took the responsibility of publishing the book in 1923 and pledged not to disclose the author’s real name. Pressure from the Muslim community resulted in the matter being taken to Session court Lahore which found Raj Pal guilty and sentenced him. Subsequently Rajpal appealed against the decision of Session Court in the Lahore High court. The appeal was heard by Judge Daleep Singh who gave leave to appeal on the grounds that on the basis of criticism against the religious leaders, no matter how immoral it is, is not covered by S.153 of the Indian Penal Code. Thus Rajpal could not be sentenced as law did not cover blasphemous criticism against religion. The High Court decision was widely criticised and protests were made against it by Muslims of India. Little did anyone suspect that one young man’s course of action would bring about a significant change in the Law, ensuring that Islam would be covered by blasphemy laws.

Ilm Din was an illiterate teenager from Lahore. His father was a carpenter. One day he was passing near Masjid (mosque) Wazir Khan. There was a huge crowd shouting slogans against Rajpal. The speaker thundered: "Oh Muslims! The devil Rajpal has sought to dishonour our beloved Prophet Muhammed (S.A.W) by his filthy book!”

Ilm Din was deeply affected by this passionate speech and vowed to take action. On 6th September 1929 Ilm Deen set out for the bazaar and purchased a dagger for one rupee. He hid the dagger in his pants and waited opposite Rajpal’s Shop. Rajpal had not arrived yet. His flight had arrived at Lahore airport and he proceeded to phone the police in order to request them to provide him security. Ilm Deen did not know what the publisher looked like. He asked a few passer-by’s as to Rajpal’s whereabouts and said that he needed to discuss something with him. Rajpal entered the shop without detection but soon after a man alerted Ilm Din that Rajpal was inside. The young man entered the shop, lunged forward and attacked him. He stabbed his dagger into the chest of Rajpal with such force that his heart was ripped from his body. Rajpal fell dead on the ground. Ilm Deen made no attempt to escape. Rajpal’s employees grabbed him and shouted for help.

The police arrived at the scene and arrested Ilm Deen. He was kept in Mianwali jail. The case went to court and Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was his defence lawyer. Jinnah fought Ghazi Ilm Deen's case on a special request from Allama Iqbal. Jinnah urged Ilm Din to enter a plea of not guilty plea and to say that he had acted due to extreme provocation. The fact that Ilm Din was only 19 years old would have also worked in his favour. Ilm Din refused to offer such a plea and insisted that he was proud of his actions. This case was the only one that Jinnah ever lost. The Session Court awarded Ilm Din the death penalty. Against his wishes, the Muslims lodged an appeal, but it was rejected.

Ilm Din's execution occurred on 31st October 1929. When asked if he had any last requests, he simply requested that he be allowed to pray two rak’at (units) nafl (voluntary) prayer, thus following the example of Khubaib (RA) who also prayed 2 rak’ats nafl before the pagan Quraish executed him. As the noose was put around the neck of Ilm Din, he repeated before the huge crowd: "O people! Bear witness that I killed Rajpal to defend our last Prophet Muhammed S.A.W, and today they are going to hang me. I am sacrificing my life whilst reciting the kalimah (shahadah - testimony of faith)."

The young man was killed and the authorities buried him without any Janazah (funeral) prayer being offered for him. Mass demonstrations broke out and there the tension between the Hindu and Muslim communities was palpable. The inhabitants of Lahore wanted Ilm Din’s body returned in order to give him an Islamic janaza (funeral). Two celebrated activists — Dr. Muhammed Allama Iqbal and Mian Abdul Aziz — campaigned to have the body of Ilm Din returned to Lahore for the Janaza prayer. The British were worried that this would incite unrest. Only after Allama Iqbal gave his assurance to the British that no riots would erupt, was permission given.

When the body of Ilm Din was exhumed from its grave, it was found to be the intact without any change whatsoever. The kaffan (shroud) had not changed its colour. This occurred on 14th November 1929 — a full 15 days after the hanging. After a two-day journey, the body arrived in Lahore. Muslims from the whole city and millions from adjoining areas attended his funeral. Ilmuddin's father requested Allama Muhammad Iqbal to lead the funeral prayer and this shivered Dr. Allama Iqbal who replied that I am a sinful person not competent to do this job to lead the funeral of such a matchless warrior. 200,000 Muslims attended the funeral prayer which led by the Imam of masjid Wazeer Khan, Imam Muhammed Shamsuddeen. Mawlana Zafar Ali Khan said ahead of the burial: "Alas! If only if I had managed to attain such a blessed status!"

Allama Iqbal carried the funeral bier along its final journey. As Iqbal placed the body of Ilm Din into the grave, he tearfully declared: "This uneducated young man has surpassed us, the educated ones."

The killing of Ilm Din had far-reaching repercussions. A provision was added to the Penal Code, making insult to the religious beliefs of any class an offense. Allama Iqbal’s proposal of a separate Muslim state in 1930 resulted in the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The Pakistan Penal Code makes it a crime for anyone who "by words or visible representation or by an imputation or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiled the name of the Prophet Muhammad ". In 1982, President Zia ul-Haq introduced Section 295B to the Pakistan Penal Code punishing "defiling the Holy Qur'an" with life imprisonment. In 1986, Section 295C was introduced, mandating the death penalty for "use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet" in keeping Islam’s hudood (prescribed punishments). Ilm Din’s legacy is still visible across Pakistan, where parks, hospitals and roads carry his name.



The recent murder of a brave human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman reminds us of the society we have shaped. It is now an unregulated space where even defending the rights of an accused is a crime. Rehman had made all the threats, including those in the courtroom, public. The local state authorities did next to nothing to protect him or rein in the individuals and groups preaching violence. It seems when it comes to religiously motivated violence the might of the state disappears. Victims of blasphemy law are no longer fit for due process. They need to be punished directly. A few days after the murder of Rehman, another accused of blasphemy was shot dead by a teenager in a police station near Lahore.

Since the brutal murder of Salmaan Taseer in January 2011, debates on the colonial blasphemy law have disappeared from the public domain. Those who advocated against its misuse were also silenced through litigation in courts by the right-wing lobbies that no longer constitute the lunatic fringe. In fact, the idea of blasphemy as a threat to Pakistan's carefully constructed "Islamic" identity mixes passion, politics and power. A state that quietly smiles at the success of its project is now complicit in mob justice and even brutal killings such as the one that took Rashid Rehman's life.

Fear and silence
Earlier in March, on the eve of Hindu festival Holi, an allegation of blasphemy against a local Hindu led to the attack on a community centre and a temple in the stronghold of liberal PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) Larkana in Southern Pakistan. The scenes of vandalisation in Sindh province, otherwise known as the land of Sufis and where the largest number of the Hindu population lives, were chilling.

It is pointless to moan the response of the state officials who are content with terming such issues "sensitive" or in other words a no-go area carved in the public imagination. A report by Reuters states that March 2014 was the "worst month for attacks on Hindus in 20 years with five temples attacked, up from nine during the whole of 2013". Nearly a month ago, a Lahore court awarded death sentence to another alleged blasphemer, Sawan Masih, marking a new low in our legal and judicial system. A low income settlement in Lahore - Joseph Colony - was attacked in 2013 and nearly a hundred homes were torched. The mayhem was triggered by an 'allegation' of blasphemy. To give credit where it is due the Punjab government promptly helped in rebuilding these homes. However, its police and prosecution failed to nab those who were involved in this kind of "collective punishment". 
The ruling party even failed to take cognizance of the reported involvement of its local leader from the area. And the judicial system - trained in the curricula and discourse of Islamisation and deeply afraid - meted out a tough sentence to another Christian.

The Punjab based militant organisations according to reports maintain close surveillance of Christian settlements. The results of this activism have been witnessed in Gojra, Jospeh Colony and elsewhere. Collusion by political parties and inability of law enforcement agencies have led to a state of confusion and impunity.

Pakistan has the unique distinction of abusing the controversial blasphemy laws and according to a recent report (prior to Sawan's sentence), 14 individuals were on death row on blasphemy convictions and 19 convicts were serving life sentences There are hundreds of others who have been arrested or charged with the crime. It is not the execution of a sentence but the fear and mob justice that comes in the wake of such charges. After Rehman's murder, lawyers would think twice before taking such a case. Judges would be afraid to deliver verdicts and the police - already partisan - will further abandon its job.

 After the sentencing of Sawan Masih, a few parliamentarians raised this issue in the national assembly but nothing changed. Outraged citizens protest, write op-eds in the English press and few reckless types like me, who tried to raise these issues on television, face bullets. Currently, Pakistan's largest private TV network - GEO - is under attack for allegedly airing a blasphemous morning show. The controversial content was a lapse of editorial judgment but the charges have put thousands of workers' lives at risk. The channel that has been in a tug of war with Pakistan's premier intelligence agency - the ISI - has now been entangled in the ultimate crisis. It may mend its relations with the state but charges of blasphemy will continue to risk its staffers.

Protecting Islam?
Pakistan has turned into a society where even an allegation of blasphemy is enough to sentence and burn people. In Sindh and Punjab mobs have burnt the accused reminding one of the ugliest of practices in human history. The abuse of blasphemy law is nothing but an issue of power and ideological supremacy by the fanatics in our society.

Ghazi Ilmudin Shaheed, who killed a Hindu writer for blasphemy in the early twentieth century, is a national hero of Pakistan's collective memory. It cannot be denied that the love and veneration for Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) is a tenet of lived Islam across the Muslim world. However, in Pakistan's case, this is less of a religious obligation and more of a political project. Implementing the blasphemy law with or without the due process is a means of dealing with a pre-Islamic past, the colonial experience, and modernity.

Above all, it is a direct result of a state project which has drummed Islamo-nationalism to build widespread public support for "strategic" aims. The battle with India is not about Kashmir or water but it is about believers vs infidels. Similarly, the engagement with the West can be managed by invoking the spectre of West attempting to harm Islam and Muslims.

This is why a good number of my countrymen view the debate on blasphemy law as "Western agenda" and something that West sponsored "evil" NGOs propagate to damage Islam and Pakistan. Are we the only Muslim country on earth? There are at least a billion Muslims living outside Pakistan and we cannot assume the gatekeeping of Ummah. No one denies that the Western aggression and misadventures haven't helped either. But we are now trapped in our own discourse, glued to an identity that values exclusion over pluralism. The rise of such discriminatory discourses in Pakistan through publications, media, militant groups - considered legitimate - have compounded our everyday reality. Upholding human rights is now a sin punishable by death.

We do stand at an abyss whether we like it or not.

In the short term, Pakistan's Parliament needs to change the investigative procedure of the blasphemy law and institute safeguards against adverse police reporting. Most importantly, it will need to protect the judges and lawyers who defend human rights.