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Killing in God’s name

Pakistan’s political class and army can’t even think of changing blasphemy law

Killing in God’s name

DOGMATIC: Social attitudes are such that popular passions are easily aroused to lead to such killings. Reuters

Vivek Katju

Ex-Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

PRIYANTHA KUMARA DIYAWADANA, a Sri Lankan engineer working as general manager, Industrial Engineering, at Rajco Industries in Sialkot, Pakistan, for the past eight years, was brutally killed by a group of workers and others on December 3. It is not clear what triggered the attack, but it seems that some Muslim workers were able to project that one of his actions was blasphemous. Media reports suggest that Priyantha was a disciplinarian and that had made him unpopular with a section of the staff.

In all this lies a lesson on the dangers to societies in which the state allows religious sentiments to be sharpened and the paths of moderation abandoned.

Reports of blasphemous conduct stoke popular passions in Pakistan and in no time angry mobs baying for blood get mobilised. Obviously, that is what happened in this case, too. While Priyantha went to the factory’s roof to escape, enraged workers chased him and took him out of the premises on to the road. He was beaten, tortured, killed and his body burnt. Some of the workers who took the lead in Priyantha’s killing took selfies. An FIR filed against all 900 workers in the factory by the SHO of the local police station, according to media reports, states that the incident took place in his presence but he was unable to intervene because of shortage of personnel. The police have arrested over a hundred persons.

The Pakistani civilian and military leadership has been deeply embarrassed by this killing. Blasphemy rumours have in the past enraged groups to riot and kill, and this is not the first time a foreign national has been killed for blasphemy; but never was a senior technocrat working in a factory targeted and done to death so suddenly and so fiendishly. PM Imran Khan announced that the killing had shamed Pakistan and that he would personally oversee the investigation. He also spoke to Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, assuring him that justice will be done. In a short statement, the Inter Services Press Relations noted that the murder was ‘condemnable and shameful’. Significantly, it added ‘COAS [i.e. army chief Qamar Bajwa] directs all-out support to civil administration to arrest perpetrators of this heinous crime and bring them to justice’. That in itself is indicative of the true nature of Pakistan’s polity.

The Pakistani and Sri Lankan governments are trying to contain the fallout of Priyantha’s killing on bilateral ties. Sri Lankan parliament has condemned the murder and has demanded the safety of the country’s workers in Pakistan. Foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has said bilateral ties with Sri Lanka will not be impacted because ‘it was the work of a group of people and the nation or the country cannot be blamed for it’. As propaganda, such a comment is on expected lines, but it also reveals Pakistan’s political class and its army’s soft attitude towards the forces of extremism in society. Social attitudes are now such that popular passions are easily aroused to lead to such killings.

Muslims everywhere have the greatest reverence for the Prophet and the Quran and do not countenance blasphemy, but in Pakistan its current blasphemy laws are used often to settle personal scores or for political dividends. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik-e-Pakistan (TLP), which represents Barelvi opinion, is in the forefront in aggressively exploiting popular sentiment against blasphemy. There are media reports that pro-TLP slogans were raised during the killing. The Pakistan state has always been soft on groups such as the TLP. The state succumbed to TLP demands and negotiated peace with it in October to prevent its cadres from marching to Islamabad. The details of the government-TLP agreement have not been disclosed but the former revoked the ban on the group, thereby allowing its open participation in public, including political, life. In return, the group gave up its march and demand for the expulsion of the French ambassador in retaliation for France allowing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad as part of its commitment to freedom of expression. What was overlooked by the Pakistan state in the negotiating process was the killing of some police personnel by TLP cadres. Pakistani officials justified this on the ground of national interest. Clearly, the prevailing view in Pakistan is that the state should take a lax attitude towards vigilante violence in cases of blasphemy, real or perceived.

Except for a brief period in the 1950s, the Pakistan state has always given way for ideological or political reasons to the injection of ever greater extremist thinking in society. This process was greatly augmented by president Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, when he deliberately turned state and society towards Islamism. Earlier military rulers stressed Pakistani nationalism even while emphasising the two-nation theory as the ideological foundation of the Pakistani state. Zia also made capital punishment mandatory for blasphemy. The Pakistan political class and the army now cannot even contemplate changing this law. Socially, too, the law is considered appropriate for blasphemy. The focus, if at all, is on its proper application.

Ten years ago, Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, was popularly hailed by large sections of the people as a hero. He was executed for murder in 2016. He is now deemed to be a martyr in the cause of Islam. His grave, close to Islamabad, has become a shrine and worshippers go to it as they go to Sufi shrines. No Pakistani political leader has the courage to take a stand against Qadri or in his grave’s conversion into a shrine. Indeed, attempts may be made by some Pakistani Islamic groups to treat Priyantha’s killers as heroes for acting against blasphemy and upholding the honour of Islam. In all this lies an object lesson on the dangers to societies in which the state machinery allows religious sentiments to be deliberately sharpened and the paths of moderation abandoned.

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