Recent developments in Pakistan on the Asia Bibi case should serve as a warning for us in India. Although in entirely different circumstances, the relevance for us in India of the Pakistani case is that it was triggered by blatant defiance and opposition to a landmark Supreme Court judgement by zealots operating in the guise of defending religion and religious sentiment. The leader of the TLP (Tehreek -i-Labback), leading the violent protests, said: "They want our country to become secular." For these extremist forces across the border, secularism is the worst that could happen to Pakistan.
Here in India, with a secular constitution, we should be conscious of the implications of hate speeches against the principle of secularism by powerful people. We also see in India open defiance and threats by top leaders of the ruling party against the Supreme Court when judgements such as in the Sabarimala temple case are not to their liking.
In Pakistan, extremist fanatic forces protested against the Supreme Court judgement acquitting Asia Bibi of charges of blasphemy. They called for the killing of the judges, used hate speech and foul language, and organised violent protests throughout the country, paralyzing Pakistan for three whole days. Prime Minister Imran Khan's address to the nation was welcomed by progressive citizens. He said "it is the duty of the central government to implement the top court's order" and warned protesters of stern action if they tried to confront the state.
But far from any action, within three days of the protests, his government capitulated, surrendered before extremist forces and signed a questionable five-point agreement with the TLP. The government assured that it would not challenge any review of the Supreme Court judgement and that it would start the legal process to put Asia Bibi on the "Exit Control List", which would prevent her from leaving the country in spite of the court ruling.
Commentators have pointed out that earlier, as an opposition party, the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-i-insaaf) had supported many of the extremist positions and actions of the TLP and even now, many in the ruling party continue those links. But at least some protested – such as Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari, who said "appeasement to avoid bloodshed sends a dangerous message to non-state players and undermines the very principle of democratic protest."
Asia Bibi, an agricultural worker most probably of Dalit origin, a Christian and a 40-year-old mother of two girls, was accused of blasphemy under Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code in June 2009. This section reads 'whoever… defiles the sacred name of the Holy prophet.. shall be punished with death or life imprisonment.." Critics of this law in Pakistan have pointed out the wording leaves it open to easy misuse – for example "defiles including by innuendo, imputation, insinuation". Asia was charged before a sessions court and sentenced to death by a trial court a year later. The punishment was confirmed by the Lahore High Court in 2014. She appealed to the Supreme Court.
Her case invited nationwide attention with extremist religious organisations demanding that the death sentence be implemented. The extent of hatred generated by their campaign was reflected in the brutal murder of then Punjab Governor Salman Taseer by his security guard in January 2011, because he had defended Asia and opposed the blasphemy law. Asia had been incarcerated for eight years, much of it on death row in solitary confinement.
It was in this charged background that the Supreme Court pronounced its judgement on October 31. It was given by a three-member bench of Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar and his fellow judges Asif Sayed Khan Khosa and Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel.
The judgement, which is worth reading, extensively quotes from the Quran and also upholds the basic principal – presumed innocent until proven guilty "irrespective of caste, creed and colour." The judges criticized a "mob" deciding whether a person is guilty or not. The judgement held that there is no credible evidence, the prosecution's case against Asia is full of contradictions and the seven witnesses have made conflicting statements. The court basically upheld the statement of innocence made by Asia Bibi when she was first charged.
She had shared a most moving account of what had happened that day. She was working in a field along with 25 to 30 women. Two sisters who were her fellow workers wanted water. She offered to get them water when the two women insulted her. Asia said: "They refused saying I am Christian, they will not accept water from me. Over this the quarrel started and some (angry) words were exchanged between me and the two."
She also argued: "My forefathers have lived in this village before the creation of Pakistan. There was never any complaint like this…I'm ignorant of any Islamic thought… how can I use such clumsy and derogatory words?"
The judges noted that none of the other women present during the fight, other than the two sisters, testified against her. While all three judges concurred on her acquittal, Justice Khosa made additional comments. "Insulting the appellants (Asia's) religion by her Muslim co-workers was no less blasphemous.. she was more sinned against than sinning," he said.
With the shameful stand taken by the government, Asia's future is uncertain. Her lawyer has already had to leave the country because of threats and has been given asylum in the Netherlands. Asia has been released from a jail in Multan and has been taken to an undisclosed place in Islamabad. The government has announced she is "being given security." Legally, even though she is at liberty to leave Pakistan if she so wishes, as is her family, the hurdles are obvious.
Democratic voices, women's movements and citizens groups in Pakistan have strongly protested the government's attitude, and continue to defend the Supreme Court judgement at great risk to their personal security. We salute them. We too must raise our voices in solidarity with Asia Bibi to demand that the Pakistan government ensure her safety and security and if she so wants, ensure her safe exit from the country.