The writer is a suspended member of the National Assembly of Pakistan and Media Adviser to the PPP Co-Chairman
Pakistan has become a brutal place to live, especially if you are a member of a religious minority. Most observers agree that the country is being swept by a rising tide of hate encouraged by unbridled hate speech. Hate speech is defined as any spoken or physical action that negatively targets a person or group of people based on their ethnicity, gender or religion.
Several countries have dealt with hate by introducing laws that enhance penalties for crimes if they are motivated by racial, gender or religious hatred. Pakistan, too, needs to implement laws that discourage the whipping up of hateful religious sentiments. While researching a private members bill to be introduced in the National Assembly of Pakistan on hate crimes and hate speech, I noticed that the issue of preventing incitement had been addressed by several articles of the Pakistan Penal Code, which dates back to 1860. The adhoc introduction of ostensibly religion-based ordinances by dictators has significantly altered Pakistan’s legal edifice, adding parallel ‘Islamic’ provisions to the pre-partition criminal justice system. In some cases, the new superstructure has weakened the foundations of a more tolerant and pluralist society that could be ensured under the original scheme of things.
The Pakistan Penal Code is fairly rigorous on the subject of hate crimes of all kind. However, we have two serious and pressing issues. Firstly, contradictory laws like the blasphemy laws challenge the ability to prosecute under the Pakistan Penal Code and secondly, over the decades, we have seen less and less implementation of the Penal Code as in the protection of rights of our minority citizens.
Article 153-A of the Penal Code prescribes punishments for promoting “enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities”. If implemented effectively, it could be the basis for prosecuting extremists who encourage religious hatred, particularly those whose ‘malicious intent’ is clear.
Part XV of the Penal Code focuses on ‘Offences Relating to Religion’. Article 295 criminalises the destruction, damaging or defiling any place of worship “or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction damage or defilement as an insult to their religion”. Article 298 provides for punishing uttering of words or making of gestures “with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person”.
Instead of applying these and related articles on all those who fuel strife between various religious groups, General Ziaul Haq amended laws in a way that religious minorities, especially Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis could be systematically discriminated against. Insulting these religions is easy while practising them has been rendered difficult. There is increasing violence against Shia Muslims as well, notwithstanding the fact that several of Pakistan’s founding fathers, including the Quaid-e-Azam, were Shia Muslims themselves.
The bill I intended to submit envisaged much longer jail terms and far stiffer monetary fines for promoting or practising religious hatred. But in terms of spirit and language, even the present Penal Code, if fully implemented, could be a good starting point for punishing those who incite violence against religious minorities. Today’s Pakistan, which has little resemblance to the country envisioned by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, consistently fails to punish those who define religiosity as hatred of other religions instead of being a manifestation of personal piety. The law should ensure that sermons should teach people about their faith and its practice rather than railing against the beliefs of others.
Naysayers may say this is no longer practical or possible to implement. However, pushing provincial and federal governments on implementation of laws against hate has become critical to ensure the country’s survival and progress. The role in preventing or protecting minorities is the duty of all law officers, judiciary and government officials which has completely fallen by the wayside. There are new incidents every day and people either don’t care enough or have been intimidated into silence by the powerful extreme right from speaking up for the Christian, Ahmadi, Hindu and Sikh communities, as well as Shia Muslims.
Acting upon our existing laws is essential. If we cannot ensure consensus or muster the will to stop the abuse of blasphemy laws then we have to, at the very minimum, implement the other laws we have. Haters need to feel the heat or else the degradation of our society will continue.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2012.