ONCE again Pakistan finds itself highlighted in the international press for the most unsavoury of reasons. The issue, the infamous ‘blasphemy law’ or Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, and the misuse to which it lends itself quite regularly now, is far from new. Public discourse was stirred even before the case of Aasia Bibi who was convicted of blasphemy in 2010, and there was some hope that a reconsideration of the law would become possible. Unfortunately, the matter has been allowed to die down, not least because of the fear of a hostile reaction from extremists and other quarters, and especially after the killing of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011. Now, yet another person has been accused of committing ‘blasphemy’. The 11-year-old girl, a member of the impoverished Christian community that lives in the rural areas around Islamabad, is said to be mentally challenged. Following allegations that the child desecrated religious texts, human rights activists have said that a number of Christian families from her area have fled, no doubt in fear of bloody reprisals.
Section 295-C in its current form can mistakenly or wilfully be used to do serious harm. The PPP government, which has been virtually silent on the issue since Mr Taseer’s assassination last year, has been unable to deal with the issue forcefully. True, President Asif Ali Zardari has taken ‘serious note’ of the incident and has sought a report from the interior ministry but this is hardly enough. Far more effort is needed to overcome the resistance to a review of this law. It is unfortunate that much of this resistance comes from ordinary Pakistanis whose emotions are easily stirred to the point of boiling rage at the mere suspicion of blasphemy. The existence of this law only implies tacit support for the actions of enraged rabbles. In the case of the 11-year-old, the police station where she was kept after being taken into custody was surrounded by a mob comprising hundreds of angry men demanding she be tried for blasphemy. Such hurdles must be overcome. The call for a review of Section 295-C needs to be renewed and the right-wing lobby which has in the past threatened or resorted to violence in this regard needs reminding that the law is man-made.