May 29, 2023

Mob rules: Blasphemy law claims another life

48-year-old Priyantha Kumara was not the first man to be lynched to death by the people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, when he was beaten and torched alive in the Punjab city of Sialkot. The Sri Lankan citizen who had been working in Pakistan at the garment factory, Rajco Industries, in the industrial town, for over a decade, just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Just as Mashal Khan did – a completely different person, at a completely different time, in a completely different place within Pakistan. A student at Abdul Wali Khan University in the city of Mardan in Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Mashal was nothing like Kumara. The 23-year-old, a Muslim by faith, belonging to a humble Pashtun Pakistani family, was studying Mass Communication at Abdul Wali Khan University where he was lynched to death on April 4, 2017.

Mashal’s crime, and Kumara’s? An ill-informed accusation of an apparent act of a possible blasphemy.

The mob was judge, jury, and executioner when Priyantha Kumara was beaten up and later torched alive by the workers of his own factory, in the afternoon of December 3, 2021. Prior to the killing, the employees of the factory staged a protest against Kumara – who had been serving at the factory as general manager for the past 10 years – accusing him of committing blasphemy. The protestors attracted a large mob, which compelled Priyantha to climb up to the roof of the building to save his life, however he could not escape and was subsequently dragged outside on the road, kicked, pelted with stones, and later set on fire.

It is believed that he was accused of committing blasphemy for taking down posters at the factory – as part of a routine renovation – that bore content relating to Islam, possibly verses from the Quran. The police, however, could not confirm that it was entirely blasphemy that was the cause of his murder, stating: “The alibi used for murder is blasphemy but the cause of murder appears personal and targeted.”

Some reports even go so far as to allege that the murder was a ‘pre-designed plot’, with an eyewitness suggesting – after accepting that the Sri Lankan man was familiar enough with the social environment of the country not to commit blasphemy – that “this incident has brought disrepute to Islam. It is a conspiracy to shame our Faith.”

It is alleged by some that the murderers – of which over 200 have been arrested – were followers of the radical Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Regardless of the truth in that allegation, it cannot be denied that the environment and culture of intolerance promoted by the expansion of the militant far-right in the country has contributed to the hate it harbors against religious minorities.

Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws are often blamed for the frequent cases of blasphemy-related murders in the Islamic Republic.

The Pakistan Penal Code, whose roots lay in the Indian Penal Code, drafted by Lord Macaulay in 1860, seeks to punish the offenders of any and all religions, not just Islam – contrary, it appears, to popular belief. Section 295(A) of the former-Indian Penal Code, ‘Hate Speech Law’, which specifically criminalises the deliberate desecration of any religious figures, was introduced under the pressure of protesting Indian Muslims when the book Rangila Rasul was published in Lahore, Punjab.

The author of the book, Mahashe Rajpal, it is important to note, was assassinated by Ilm-ud-din on April 6, 1929, and never convicted under Sector 295(A) since his book was published before the introduction of the concerned section.

General Zia is also demonised for further tightening the blasphemy rope around Pakistani citizens, with the introduction of several ordinances that made it much easier to commit blasphemy. Zia’s blasphemy ordinances – Section 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code – however, seemed much more focused on tightening the noose around the already marginalised Ahmediyya and Shi’ite communities of the country, by criminalising, among other things, the slightest hint of an insult on Islamic religious figures, held dear, especially, by Sunni Muslims.

Nevertheless, it is reported that, between 1987 and 2017, 1500 people were convicted under the blasphemy laws, and at least 78 people have been reported to have died in related incidents since 1990. It is further reported that around 80 people are on the death row or serving life sentences in Pakistan for committing blasphemy. Therefore, the increase in the intensity of the blasphemy laws by Zia’s additions cannot be denied.

Another intrusive addition to this exclusive set of laws was Nawaz’s ban on ‘blasphemous content’ on the internet, in March 2017. It is this addition that, possibly, owes Mashal Khan his life, as the young, inquisitive student was partly accused of sharing blasphemous content online. Not Zia’s Section 298 nor Bhutto’s constitutional declaration of the Ahmediyya as non-Muslims in 1974.

Having said all of this, however, it is important to add that none of the laws discussed above or recorded in the Pakistan Penal Code – no matter how stringent – punish any crime with ‘being lynched to death by a violent and angry mob’. There is no allowance, no excuse, no room for taking the law into one’s own hands, or for taking anybody’s life, let alone in such a brutal, barbaric manner in which both Priyantha Kumara and Mashal Khan lost their lives.

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