The Supreme Court has made history in Pakistan by acquitting Asia Bibi, a poor Christian woman, of blasphemy charges. The apex court’s judges Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel have shown an exemplary courage and matchless integrity by upholding justice in the Asia Bibi’s case.
After the apex court’s decision, extremists, including the TLP (Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan) members, started protests across the country. The protests were violent in nature. The protesters damaged many government properties, burnt cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles, and looted many shops. The leadership of the TLP have also threatened and spoken against the judiciary, the army and the government. One of the leading clerics has even urged the staff of the judges to kill them. They have also tried to incite a revolt in the army by instigating other generals to step in against the Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa. They have also termed Prime Minister Imran Khan as a Jewish agent and demanded for the removal of his government. As verbal assaults and protests grew in intensity, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on the PTV and pledged that he would take every action for upholding the rule of law and protecting the writ of the state.
But, instead of taking any stern action against the protesters to end road blockades and violence, the government surrendered and entered into an agreement with the TLP, assuring the protestors, “the government would not object to the review petition filed against the acquittal of the Christian woman and would initiate a legal process to place her name on the ECL. The government would initiate legal action against those who were involved in killing civilians and injuring law enforcement personnel during the countrywide protests, but release others arrested on October 30 and afterwards. On the other hand, the TLP only tendered an apology to those who faced problems because of its protests, sit-ins and road blockades”.
Following the agreement, TLP leaders Pir Afzal Qadri and Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi addressed a press conference in Lahore. Mr. Qadri said the Supreme Court would form a full bench without the three judges, who had issued the October, 30 verdict in the blasphemy case, and review the decision which was “rejected by the whole nation”. “This is for the first time that the whole country came to a grinding halt following a Supreme Court decision,” he said, claiming that many of the SC judges had also disputed the judgement.
Referring to an apprehension that Aasia Bibi has been sent abroad, Mr Qadri said that “a war would immediately begin in the country and there (would be) a call for a revolution”. “We have also made it clear to the government party that all protesters will come back to their protesting positions, if there will be any mistake,” he warned. [As it happens, Asia Bibi and her family have been flown out to the Netherlands. Ed]
Khadim Rizvi said all the arrested protesters, including those implicated in cases, would be immediately released. “We know how to respond if the government tried to victimise any of the arrested protesters. All protesters were defending Namoos-i-Risalat,” he said.
These threatening statements from the TLP leaders and new developments manifest the following:
1: Religious extremists have become very powerful. The extremists have forced the state twice to accept their demands in less than a year. Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook has already left the country. Extremists have already killed many people like the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, Pakistan’s religious minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti in 2011 on allegations of committing blasphemy. A TLP supporter tried to kill Ahsan Iqbal, former interior minister in the PML-N’s government in Narowal. An extremist also attacked Nawaz Sharif, former PM, with a shoe at the Jamia Naeemia in Lahore. The apex court’s verdict also discusses the blasphemy issue. It reads: “another aspect of the matter”, which is that “sometimes, to fulfil nefarious designs, the law is misused by individuals levelling false allegations of blasphemy”. It says 62 people have been killed for blasphemy since 1990 “even before their trial could be conducted in accordance with the law”, and mentions the lynching of Mashal Khan at Mardan University as the latest example.
2: There is no doubt that the establishment and politicians have played their role in making religious fanatics and extremists powerful just to protect their own partisan interests. But, now, the TLP, from the Barelivi sect, has entered as a formidable religious and political force. In the 2018 elections, the TLP emerged as the fifth largest party in the country, bagging more than two million votes and winning two seats in the Sindh assembly. After the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, who killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011, the TLP gained popularity in Pakistan. Qadri is considered as a hero and saint in the eyes of the TLP followers. After Qadri’s death, a mausoleum has been built over his grave where people come to pray and make offerings. The TLP is, now, posing a colossal challenge for the state because the group has strong and extensive street power which can block roads and disrupt life across the country with celerity. Once, the MQM commanded such massive street power in the 1990s in Karachi.
3: After the agreement with the TLP, the PTI government looks divided on the issue. It does not have any cohesive strategy to tackle rising extremism. The ministers have different viewpoints regarding this burning issue. Shereen Mazari, the minister for human rights, posted on Twitter that “appeasement of bigotry was not the right course”. Fawad Chaudhary, the minister for information, said that the agreement was fire fighting and FIRs have been registered against those clerics who issued fatwas on judges and abused the military. The Punjab government’s ministers have a different approach to the issue.
4: It sounds good that the PTI government has avoided bloodshed by finding other ways to de-escalate the situation. At the same time, the writ of the state should be established. Those who have openly declared judges of the highest court as wajib-ul-qatl (worthy of murder) and incite mutiny within the ranks of the army should be dealt with an iron hand. The PTI government has already arrested many people who have indulged in violent protests. It must not allow the leaders and members of the TLP to keep the country hostage.
5: The TLP is now openly challenging the establishment. So, the establishment which has distributed money among the group members in 2017 should stop helping and supporting these groups. The state and its institutions are very sacred. Those who try to weaken and damage them must be prosecuted as per the law immediately.
6: The registration of FIRs against “miscreants” is meaningless without taking practical and legal steps against them. The government should ensure speedy trials and effective prosecution of these cases, if it wants to give a strong and clear message that breaking the law is a serious crime.
7: After the arrest of numerous workers, the TLP is threatening the government again. There is every possibility that the TLP will start its protests again. Moreover, the MMA is also holding gatherings against the government and the verdict. Unfortunately, the MMA is again using religious card to preserve its political interests. The government should form an effective plan to tackle such impending eventualities peacefully.
8: Pakistan, unfortunately, is facing a rapid increase in extremism, which is threatening the stability of the country. The ruling elite, including politicians, the army, the judiciary, religious leaders, should implement NAP fully and respect the verdict of the apex court earnestly, if it wants to halt extremism in the society and turn Pakistan into a genuinely democratic and moderate country.
If it happens, that would be tabdeeli. Otherwise, the dark scenes of violence and open threats to the judiciary and the army clearly indicate an unstable future for the country.