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Pakistan’s Blasphemy law has created a climate of vigilante violence

Pakistan’s Blasphemy law stems from Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (6th October, 1860) XLV of 1860. It states that whoever “defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to pay a fine.” This law is phrased in vague terms therefore violating the principle of legality and is often used to level false accusations on people from religious minorities. Asia Bibi is a notable example of a person against whom such a violation occurred. Victims of these false accusations are often presumed guilty and can be convicted without substantive evidence. Independent human rights organisation Global Human Rights Defence receives a number of cases each month from the representatives of victims of the blasphemy law. According to the 2012 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) annual report, “The government of Pakistan continues to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.

The USCIRF has designated Pakistan as “country of particular concern” since 2002. The report argues that “The country’s blasphemy laws used predominantly in Punjab but also nationwide, targets members of religious minority communities and dissenting Muslims and this frequently results in imprisonment. The USCIRF is aware of at least 16 individuals on a death row and 20 more serving life sentences. The blasphemy law along with anti-Ahmadi laws that effectively criminalise various practices of their faith has created a climate of vigilante violence. Hindus have suffered from the climate of violence and hundreds have fled Pakistan for India. Farahnaz Ispahani who was the media advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008 to 2012 has blamed the successive Pakistani governments of pursuing a “slow genocide” against minorities to shore up their political base. These clauses can be grouped into two categories – the anti-Ahmadi laws and the blasphemy laws.” There is widespread popular support for these laws in Pakistan and that two prominent critics of these laws, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated in 2011.

Hundreds of Christians are among the accused – at least 12 of them were given the death sentence for blaspheming against the Prophet in Pakistan. Mass anti-Christian violence occurred in the 2009 Gojra riots and in the 2013 Joseph Colony riot and the 2013 Gujranwala riot. Anti-Shia violence includes the February 2012 Kohistan Shia Massacre, the August 2012 Mansehra Shia Massacre and the particularly deadly January 2013 and February 2013 Quetta bombings. The Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan was targeted in the similarly deadly May 2010 attacks on Ahmadi mosques in Lahore.  A survey carried out by All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement Pakistan’s revealed that out of 428 Hindu temples in Pakistan only around 20 survive today and they remain neglected by the Evacuee Trust Property Board which controls those while the rest had been converted for other uses since 1990. However, in November 2019, the government of Pakistan started restoring process of 400 Hindu temples in Pakistan. After restoration, the temples will be reopened to Hindus in Pakistan. Pakistan has various religious minorities.

According to the 1941 census of India, there were 12 million non-Muslims in the provinces that today form Pakistan. During and after Pakistan’s independence in 1947, about 5 million Hindus and Sikhs emigrated with Punjab alone accounting for migration of 3.9 million. 14.2 per cent of Pakistan’s total population including Bangladesh was non-Muslim minorities according to 1951 census. In 1951, the non-Muslim minorities population was 3.44 per cent in Pakistan while in Bangladesh, the non-Muslims had a majority share comprising 23.20 per cent of the total population in Bangladesh. After the partition, non-Muslims formed about a quarter of East Bengal’s population and 14 per cent overall. By 1997, the percentage of Hindus remained stable at 1.85 per cent in Pakistan while Bangladesh has witnessed a decline with Hindus migrating from it because of insecurity due to fear of persecution, conflict, communal violence (as a result of newly-created Bangladesh’s assertion of its Muslim identity) and poverty.

The percentage of Hindus in Bangladesh had dropped to 9.2 per cent by 2011 with non-Muslims accounting for 10.2 per cent of the population. Much of the decrease in minorities of Pakistan has occurred due to the events around the partition, the wars of 1965 and 1971. Various causes like religious violence and forced conversions are attributed as responsible for decline of minorities. Forced conversions and marriages represent a significant threat to underage girls in Pakistan. Around 1000 girls belonging to religious minorities were estimated to be forcibly converted every year according to NGOs. In November 2019, Pakistan formed a parliamentary committee to stop the act of forced conversion in the country. According to Western religious freedom and human rights monitoring groups, religious minorities face severe discrimination in Pakistan.

(With Inputs from various agencies)

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Dr Vaidehi Taman
Dr Vaidehi an Accredited Journalist from Maharashtra is bestowed with Honourary Doctorate in Journalism, Investigative Journalist, Editor, Ethical Hacker, Philanthropist, and Author. She is Editor-in-Chief of Newsmakers Broadcasting and Communications Pvt. Ltd. for 11 years, which features an English daily tabloid – Afternoon Voice, a Marathi web portal – Mumbai Manoos, monthly magazines like Hackers5, Beyond The News (international) and Maritime Bridges. She is also an EC Council Certified Ethical Hacker, Certified Security Analyst and is also a Licensed Penetration Tester which caters to her freelance jobs.

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