My piece which was published a fortnight ago. Today Rimsha was released on bail by a judge. Thank God sanity prevailed. But Rimsha and her family face grave dangers even now. We need to save Rimsha as well as protect the Christian community of Pakistan. Their rights as Pakistani citizens are inviolable.
As I write these lines, Rimsha Masih, a minor, languishes in an overcrowded jail on charges of blasphemy. Media reports suggest that she is unwell and suffers from Down Syndrome. For a week this case made the headlines with appeals for mercy and justice flowing in from all quarters of the world. But justice and compassion are in short supply for Islamabad’s zealots who got the girl booked in the first place allegedly for burning a “Noorani Qaeda” (a basic introduction to the Holy Quran for children). This is not the only case where someone has been prosecuted for blasphemy. Sadly, nor will this be the last one, given the open-ended and vague law which cannot be questioned.
A man-made colonial law has acquired a ‘holy’ status as if it were Divinely ordained. The British regime had enacted the original law in its own interest to maintain peace in a multi-faith India where religious tensions were rising in the early twentieth century. Instead of reviewing it once we achieved and fortified an Islamic Republic, Zia ul Haq and his followers made it even more stringent.
Human rights groups have been pointing out how this law is open to abuse to settle personal scores, grab land and entitlements of the poor and the marginalized irrespective of their faith. This is why dozens of such cases of blasphemy have been registered against Muslims than non-Muslims in Pakistan. In the 1990s, activist Asma Jahangir’s efforts to protect another young boy led to attacks on her and she had to remain under police protection for a long time. Also in the 1990s, a progressive High Court judge lost his life after he released those accused of blasphemy.
After a decade the issue acquired national importance when the former Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer stood up for a Christian woman accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. (The judge who sentenced her relied more on ideological shenanigans than facts and laws.) Taseer was killed by his own security guard and the murderer was celebrated by bigots across the country. A few months after Taseer’s murder, another senior government functionary, Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister for Minorities was brutally shot in Islamabad, ostensibly for his continued efforts to work for reforming this law. Another parliamentarian, Sherry Rehman, was threatened and faced court cases for her activism in seeking parliamentary review of the law. The cause was abandoned. We all adopted silence as it was the “right” thing to do.
The British regime had enacted the original blasphemy law in its own interest to maintain peace in a multi-faith India where religious tensions were rising
But the case of a child being prosecuted defies all laws of the land. In the criminal law that we follow (until it is replaced by another code prescribed by the fanatics), a minor cannot be proceeded against. Furthermore, a mentally unsound person has legal cover and cannot be treated at par with those who know the consequences of their actions.
The Islamabad Police working under a moderate government did not hesitate to register the case. Their lame excuse was to provide ‘protection’ to the child against the bigots. One can only partially sympathise with this point of view. Admittedly, now the bigots want to encircle the police station and demand access to the accused for rough mob justice. A similar incident took place not long ago in Bahawalpur where apparently a mentally challenged man was set to fire by a cheering crowd of thousands to protect the glory of Islam. The Capital Police should have been more circumspect and ought to have acted under the law rather than pragmatic reasons.
More worryingly, the court where the child was presented found it fit to send her to the infamous Rawalpindi jail where many an enemy of Pakistan and Islam have been welcomed in the past. The President intervened and asked for a report. Even now we are not sure if Rimsha will get justice and compensation for the way she has been treated. The testimony of an Islamabad activist recently indicated how traumatized the poor child is.
This brings us to the question what is to be done about Rimsha. The first priority is to ensure her safety. We must mount a legal challenge to the way the legal machine has acted out fear and ideological bias rather than the facts of the matter. An arrest required a preliminary inquiry before a formal FIR was registered but there was a breakdown of the system.
Now the bigots want to encircle the police station and demand access to the accused for rough mob justice
And then there is the issue is of the security of the Christian community in Islamabad, which is reportedly being threatened by the extremists who might not refrain from burning down the village. After all, we know what happened in Gojra a few years ago when Christian homes were burnt down and no punishments were meted out to the terrorists.
In the past few days, people have asked me if Rimsha’s case should not be over-projected for it brings a bad name to Pakistan and Islam. Others have sided with the view that actually she is not a minor and was working on some grand plot to defame Islam. All these misplaced concerns are a proof of the intolerant, unequal and insensitive society we have become.
Raza Rumi is Director Policy & Programs at Jinnah Institute in Islamabad and a consulting editor at TFT. The views expressed are his own. His writings are archived at www.razarumi.com