In Monday's session of the upper house some senators tried to grapple with that question, calling for introducing in the blasphemy law the same punishment for those who level a false accusation as the one for blasphemers. It may be recalled that Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated for advocating that measure. Also, a PPP legislator who moved a similar proposal in the National Assembly as the one suggested by the senators had to withdraw under threat from religious parties, and run for her life. Those seeking a change have been pointing out that since it is a manmade law, instituted by the Zia regime, like many manmade things it contains a flaw in precluding punishment for false accusers, which needs to be rectified. The Islamic concept of Qazf in Hudd laws that forbids false accusations can be taken as the guiding principle. The religious parties wouldn't hear any of this due to their own vested interests. Back in December 2010, various religious groups and parties, including the JUI-F and JI, held a meeting, issuing the threat to foil with "full force" any attempt to change or "weaken" the law. That has been their consistent stance since.
The widespread shock and horror caused by the 23-year-old's lynching seems to have opened up some space for sane discussion of the issue. Terming the incident "not terrorism but savagery" PML-N Senator retired Lieutenant General Abdul Qayyum sought to remind anyone who would care to pay heed that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance prohibiting excesses, making a case for an amendment in the blasphemy law. JI chief Siraju-ul Haq, for his part, while condemning the ghastly murder, said if someone is guilty of a crime no individual or organisation had right to punish anyone on their own, but stopped short of suggesting corrective measures. Of course, no one is supposed to take law into their own hands yet, according to a report, that has happened in at least 65 cases since 1990 before the latest savagery. Surely, the JI leader is aware that innocent people have been getting killed because someone wanted to settle a personal score or make a property grab.
In the Mashal Khan's case, slowly emerging details show some members of the administration, annoyed with him for exposing various malpractices, used blasphemy as a convenient way to get rid of him. A notification was issued on that ground expelling him and two of his friends. Which served as an incitement for the mob to commit the unspeakable crime.
Voicing a common concern, PPP's Senator Farhatullah Babar said "the assassination of Mashal Khan should make us think about concrete measures to prevent the misuse of the blasphemy law." He thought revisiting the law would "deter such mentality." Effective legislation is important indeed, but even if the law is amended as proposed, little is likely to change unless a concerted effort is made to change the prevailing environment of fear and intimidation that allows for misuse of the present law. The JI leader could only aver that the rule of law is what defines a civilised society. As it is, even in cases where the accused have been tried, the rule of law could not be upheld. The judges either suffer from a bias or feel pressured to deliver guilty verdict, while lawyers are too afraid to defend a blasphemy accused. A judge of the Lahore High Court, Justice Arif Hussain Bhatti, was shot dead in his chambers right after acquitting an accused and the freed accused also murdered while waiting for a bus to go home. In another case, the Bishop of Faisalabad, Dr John Joseph, frustrated over his failure to find a lawyer to defend a Christian blasphemy accused and see him handed death sentence, committed suicide.
What needs to be reshaped more than the law is "such mentality". That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of political as well religious parties' leaders - the latter of course find it useful to perpetuate the bigoted mindset. Sadly, in the present case at first it was only the PTI Chairman Imran Khan who took a strong stand saying "firm action necessary. Law of the jungle can't prevail". PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto followed with a statement offering condolences to the family and urging adequate step to check such incidents in future. Soon afterwards, several other politicians condemned the killing. But the Prime Minister and his heir apparent, daughter Maryam Nawaz, waited for two long days to speak what they should have spoken immediately after the news came in. Among other things, the PM urged the nation "to condemn this crime and to promote tolerance and rule of law in society."
Actions, which only the government can take, rather than advice to the nation, will promote tolerance and the rule of law. It needs to take effective steps in that direction, such as weeding out the seeds of intolerance sown by the Zia regime in school curriculums, putting a stop to preaching of hate gospels poisoning young minds in madressahs, deactivating violent sectarian organizations, and ensuring those misusing the fair name of Islam to kill other citizens are brought to justice. Only then can one expect what happened at the Mardan university will never happen again.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2017