The History and Application of Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan

Author:Thomas Brandes

Department:Pakistan Team

The world stood shocked on the sixth of December 2021, when one of the most outrageous examples of mob lynchings occurred in Sialkot, Pakistan. A factory manager by the name of Priyantha Kumara, aged 48 and originally from Sri Lanka, was accused of blasphemy. Enraged by such accusations, Kumara was beaten to death with sticks and set on fire by a mob (Hashim, 2021). Videos appeared on social media of young men chanting slogans against blasphemy, as some in the crowd took photographs of themselves with the burning body. It may be an unfortunate surprise that Kumaras case is not isolated, with 80 people facing death at the hands of extrajudicial killings following blasphemy allegations since 1990 (Hashim, 2021). This paper aims to examine the laws that spur such killings, their legal genealogy and what effect they have in Pakistan today.In order to contextualise these sections of the PPC, it is obligatory to understand the history of the document. The PPC was inherited from the colonial British, with the Indian Penal Code of 1860, with sections of the code still being found in the PCs of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar today (Badry, 2019). The anti-blasphemy laws were originally far less strict, composed to minimise friction between colonised religious groups during British occupation. The act was amended to introduce Section 295-A in 1927 to criminalise deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious believers following bouts of agitation. Despite the existence of these laws, it is important to highlight that between 1947-1977, there were only ten reported judgments that relate to offences against religion in Pakistan, no case was registered by a Muslim against a non-Muslim for committing an act of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad or for defiling the Holy Quran (International Commission of Jurists, 2015).

Under the military dictatorship of General Zia-Ul-Haq, the laws took the shape that we may recognise today. The accelerated Islamisation of Pakistan was arguably carried out to solidify support from religious radicals and the middle classes (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2010). The Islamisation period involved the imposition of the Hudood Ordinance, allowing harsh Sharia punishments for extramarital sex, theft, and violations of the prohibition of alcohol. Five ordinances against religious minorities were included in the PPC and criminalised blasphemy. In addition, Sharia benches were introduced into Superior Courts through constitutional amendments. These benches were soon replaced by the Federal Sharia Court, whose mandate includes reviewing all Pakistani laws, with the exception of the constitution, for compliance with the Sharia Hudood Ordinance, which allows harsh Sharia punishments for extramarital sex, theft, and violations of the prohibition of alcohol. (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2010).
Effects of the Laws
Due to the nature of these laws, it is impossible to detail the full extent of the manner in which they alter everyday life in Pakistan. However, despite this, we may observe clear and direct effects on certain groups of the population, namely, the usage of such laws against religious minority groups. Christians and Ahmadis are disproportionately affected despite constituting only three to four percent of the total population showing that those marginalised in society were often among those victimised by such laws (Badry, 2019).