16 February 2011

On Blasphemy

The recent public debate on blasphemy reminded me of an article I wrote, as part of a column called Miscellany-at-Law (A Diversion) that was published, for a while, in The Friday Times around about, I think, 2001/2002. There's an element of time-warp in the column because, I'm posting this on 12 Rabi ul Awwal and there's a cricket World Cup underway (the relevance of this becomes clear because of the case referred to in the last paragraph).

On Blasphemy

Readers will no doubt be aware of the recent violence in Nigeria, precipitated by some unwarranted comments about the Holy Prophet and the contestants of this year’s Miss World competition, scheduled in Lagos on 7 December 2002. The violence protesting against the blasphemous remarks cost some 200 lives, and has resulted in the competition shifting to the safer environs of London.

Readers will also no doubt be aware of the local pathans who had taken umbrage against an allegedly blasphemous letter written in the Frontier Post last year. Their overreaction to this letter has seen the destruction of that newspaper’s offices as well as (non-sequitor) a cinema. The law of blasphemy has had an infamous past in our country, and much has been written about the merits and demerits of this legislation. Notwithstanding the ludicrous over-reaction of the Allah-fearing tribesmen of Peshawar – what with going on a violent rampage when a more dignified response would have been adequate – there have been other occasions where these laws have been pressed into service with amusing (at least in these cases) results.

For example, Muslims are not the only religious community in Pakistan who have been subject to blasphemous remarks. In 1952, an advocate of the Lahore High Court, Khawaja Nazir Ahmad, published a book called “Jesus on Heaven and Earth”. The book was forfeited over a year later by order of the Punjab Government on the grounds that “it was a vituperative attack on four fundamental Christian beliefs.” The book said that “Jesus was born of the wedlock of Mary and Joseph, that he did not die on the cross, but was removed while still alive, that after his wounds had healed, he and his mother went to Muree where the latter died, that thence he proceeded to Kashmir where he also died, that Muree has been named after Mary who grave is also found there, and that the grave of Jesus is in Srinagar.” On a somewhat different note, the narrative of the book resembles the plot of one of Sultan Rahi’s famous films: Hitlar. In it, it is shown that Hitler did not, in fact, commit suicide, but instead retreated to the Punjabi heartland to raise an equally malevolent son.

The case was argued by the Khawaja Nazir Ahmad himself who, as Mr. Justice M.R. Kiyani of the Lahore High Court observed, needed “some little assistance by Mr. Yaqub Ali on the legal issue”. Justice Kiayani went on to describe Nazir Ahmad’s rhetoric as full of “religious fervor, touching occasionally the high-water mark of fanaticism, so essential for a missionary.”

Justice Kiayani found the contents of the book clearly fell into the mischief of section 295-A, but added by way of warning against the misuse of the blasphemy laws that “although the religious beliefs of the Christians have been insulted by this book, it will not be easy to presume on the strength of the words used, that the author had ‘deliberate and malicious intention of outraging’ their religious feelings. The intention is burdened by so many heavy adjectives that [sic] attack be very clearly abusive, obscene or vulgar before it can cause [sic] mischief of s. 295-A, or to Christians, or indeed to any religious body.”

Justice Kiayani also had a few words to say about the two Christians, Mr. C.E. Gibbon and Mr. S.P. Singha, both representatives of the legislative assembly, who sought to be made party to this case, or for that matter anyone who sought to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy. He felt that the matter was between the government and the publishers. He also had some advice for the government, which had taken two years to take action against the book: “It was unnecessary for Mr. Gibbon to file an affidavit, and it was futile to argue that Mr. Gibbon alone was offended. We do not expect Mr. Gibbon to arm himself with a kirpan and preach violence from the steps of the Assembly building to a very peaceful community. But if we look for resolutions and protests meetings, and processions carrying blackened faces on donkeys and fireworks and tear-gas before we take action, then we foster cold contempt and hatred and sap the foundations of the State.” Words that are relevant even today. (In the matter of the Book “Jesus In Heaven on Earth” and in the matter of Woking Muslim Mission And Literary Trust, Lahore and of the Civil and Military Gazette, Limited, Lahore v. The Crown PLD 1954 Lah 724.)

Even the High and Mighty have not been spared. In the summer of 1977, the Chairman of WAPDA, Maj. Gen. Fazal-i-Raziq gave a rousing speech to the officers of WAPDA, impressing upon them the importance of “haqooq-al-abad”, the need to earn an honest livelihood and to complete Tarbela Dam as early as possible in order to rebuild the economy of the country (the more things change, the more they stay the same…). A few months later, one Riaz Ahmad filed a complaint against the Chairman under section 295-A of the Pakistan Penal Code on the grounds that the otherwise innocuous speech was a deliberate and malicious attempt to outrage the religious feelings of the Muslims of Pakistan. The law reports are silent as to his motives, but do disclose that, he had only recently been removed from his post as Superintendent of the WAPDA House in Lahore. Res ipso loquitor.

The complaint was quashed on technical grounds, with the Lahore High Court holding that prosecutions under section 295-A, as per the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, were to be taken up only on the authority of the Federal or Provincial Governments, and not by way of private complaint (Major General Fazal-i-Raziq, Chairman WAPDA v. Ch. Riaz Ahmad PLD 1978 Lah 1082). Readers will be aware that the other sub-sections of section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code do not have such a safety provision, rendering the legislation susceptible to the abuse of private individuals. Readers will also remember that attempts to modify these laws in order to make blasphemy prosecutions the sole responsibility of the Government have been met with violence, much like that seen in Peshawar recently.

More recently, however, even the publishers of the Holy Quran have not been spared against allegations of blasphemy. In the case of M.M.K.A. Zai v. The Director General FIA (PLD 1988 Kar 505), the Taj Company itself was accused of blasphemy. The petitioner found that some of the hard-cover bindings of the Holy Quran hid “nude and indecent pictures” (what the Petitioner was doing ripping up covers of the Holy Quran was not questioned during proceedings), and sought the Company to be tried under section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code. An investigation of the Taj Company’s premises revealed three more Qurans containing “objectionable material”. Even the Taj Company was stumped.

Subsequent FIA investigations revealed that in 1980, the Company had placed an order of 12,500 copies of the Holy Quran from an Italian firm, If-Ghifo of Milan. This Italian concern, as things turned out, must not have been aware of the purpose for which they were being asked to prepare the bindings for so many books, and had used material from old art magazines. That explained the nudies. Justice Sajjad Ali Shah (as he was then) of the Sindh High Court held that as nobody in Pakistan was blame for this reprehensible act, and as the Taj Company was taking the necessary steps to recall the books, no legal action was needed.

Discerning readers will also be aware that M.M.K.A. Zai is one of the first public interest litigants in the country. In 1988, he filed a writ in the Sindh High Court, attempting to ban the broadcast of the semi-finals of the Reliance Cup (M.M.K.A. Zai v. Incharge, Pakistan Television Corporation Ltd. PLD 1988 Kar 307). He contended that the date of the match coincided with 12 Rabi-ul-Awal, and good Muslims should be “reciting Darood, Salaam and Naats” on that auspicious occasion rather than being distracted by cricket. Religious fervor must have made him overlook the venue of the match: Bombay. Dismissing the petition, Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, no doubt a cricket-lover, observed that Bombay “is not only outside the territorial jurisdiction of this High Court but it is also outside the country.” Case dismissed.


For anyone's who's got this far, two confessions:

First, that the name of the column, Miscellany-at-Law was shamelessly lifted by me from the name of the wonderful series of diversions on the law by R.E. Megarry, V-C. Megarry's wit and marvellous grasp of legal trivia made, in many ways, my understanding of the law easier and infinitely more fun. In defence to any charges of plagiarism, I will happily reply by stating that imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

Second, almost every one of the articles I wrote in this series of columns, and I think they were over two-dozen, give or take, began with "On". Thus On Blasphemy or On Goondas or On Honour Killings and so on. I ascribed to this pretentious affectation because, I confess, of a great admiration of The Master Essayist himself, Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne started each of his essays (other than An Apology for Raymon Seybond) with "On", I was only happy enough to pretend to I could do so too.