Recent episode of violent protests across Pakistan on the acquittal of Asia Bibi quaked the country to its core, seriously tarnishing the social fabric of the society. The acquittal was approved by the Supreme Court of Pakistan following conviction(s) from Trial Court and High Court since 2009. The acquittal itself, along with violent protests that followed and the long pleading of the case has on the whole, raised many questions about the judicial system, the social health of the society, the situation of minorities, and most evidently, the role of the State of Pakistan.
In order to meaningfully address the aforesaid areas, it is pertinent to first establish an understanding about the case. Asia Bibi was convicted over charges of committing blasphemy in view of the alleged derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) back in 2009. First Information Report (FIR) of the incident was registered following a delay of five days. Incidentally, Salman Taseer, then Governor of Punjab visited Asia Bibi and upheld the need for revision(s) in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws; citing how they had been misused for personal gains in the past. After these remarks he was assassinated by his own security guard Mumtaz Qadri. This event was followed by another assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister from Minorities. These episodes are deeply linked with this case. In the meanwhile, Asia Bibi was declared guilty by the Trial Court and later the High Court. Capital punishment was pronounced. In 2014, Asia ran to file a petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan against her conviction. After four years the Supreme Court set aside her conviction on 31st October, 2018. Now the question arises on what grounds this acquittal was done?
According to Reema Omer, a prominent lawyer, the acquittal has been approved on four grounds;
- Unexplained delay in FIR;
- Inconsistencies in witness testimonies;
- Reliance on Asia Bibi’s extra-judicial confession;
- Failure of courts to take into account the circumstances of allegations, including ‘heated argument’ about Asia Bibi’s faith.
These are four broad reasons of acquittal. The judges of the Supreme Court have also explained the ins and outs of each event, evidence and witnesses of the case. For instance, there was no solid ground of delaying five days in registering FIR. There were glaring contradictions between witnesses’ accounts to the point that contradictions were found about the setting of the incident, number of people at the time of the alleged utterance and lastly, regarding who brought Asia Bibi with regard to extra-judicial confession.
It is the responsibility of the State and citizens to bring about positive and constructive social change with the renaissance of above said safety valves otherwise chickens of intolerance and violence will come home to roost again and again.
Jean Jacques Rousseau – A Genevan philosopher from the 18th century said, religion has done more harm to societies than curing the illness within them. In fact, the negative use of religion has done more harm because at the very core, all religions spread peace and harmony. From 2009 to 2018, violent episodes in the name of religion remained frequent with each development. Justice Asif Saeed Khosa’s remarks in this regard exhibit the same notion. In his words; ‘Blasphemy is a serious offence but the insult of the appellant’s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was also not short of being blasphemous. It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’ but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Leare, “more sinned against than sinning.’
The judgment on Asia Bibi’s case clearly reflects how the name of religion was used for personal gains and both Trial Court as well as the High Court were either under pressure or neglected evidences. Above all, it is verdict of apex body of judiciary, the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Every citizen must understand the simple fact that if he/she is not convinced with judgment, legal course of review can be and should be used. Taking law into ones’ hands, threatening the state institutions, urging the security guards to kill the judges, blaming the Generals and the government for acquittal, inciting people for violence, blocking major roads and motorways, burning vehicles, damaging public properties, snatching livelihood of citizens and creating an atmosphere of extreme terror through chaos and anarchy is nothing but insanity in the name of religion.
The most important aspect in this regard is why these kinds of violent episodes have become frequent in the social behavior of society? What are the core reasons behind the flourishing of these attitudes? The first and foremost thing in this regard is the weak role of the State. The State has been incompetent in identifying and solving these episodes; regardless of its intentions.. Moreover, there are five other reasons due to which the health of the society reflects unhealthy behavior. These include a crippling state of economy, absence of reformation, lack of art and literature, aversion from science and technology, colonial legacy of judicial system and weak role of intellectual elites. In every society the aforementioned determinants are considered as the safety valves, critical to bring about positive and constructive social changes in the society. Unfortunately, no reformation has occurred in our society after Sir Syed’s Aligargh Movement. Regrettably, our literature is on the death bed. Ironically, we are light years away from science and technology. Poignantly, our intellectual elite is not connected with masses. Miserably, our judicial system is inefficient and void of justice. Most importantly, our political elites always tend to wrongly cash on these episodes. When these safety valves of the society are shunned, intolerance and violence are inevitable. It is the responsibility of the State and citizens to bring about positive and constructive social change with the renaissance of above said safety valves otherwise chickens of intolerance and violence will come home to roost again and again.
Khaqan Ahmad has done M.Phil in International Relations from the National Defense University, Islamabad. His areas of expertise are Indo-Pacific region, Middle East, European Affairs, International Political economy, Foreign Policy of USA, China and Russia, Philosophy, Theories of IR and Artificial Intelligence. Currently, he is working as a Research Associate at the CSCR.