At least one of three Sikhs who were abducted for ransom about a month ago by the Pakistani Taliban was killed on Sunday, Feb 21.
The murdered man, Jaspal Singh, and his fellow kidnap victims were Pakistani citizens who lived in Khyber Agency’s Tirah Valley.
Their abductors were demanding a ransom payment of Rs30 million, to be delivered by Sunday. The other two in the group are allegedly still being held by the Taliban, although there is some confusion since some reports say that two beheaded bodies were found in Orakzai and Khyber agencies.
There are also unconfirmed reports that decapitated heads were delivered by the Taliban to the gurdwara in the area, and that letters found with the bodies warned elders in the region not to disclose the case to the media.
The killing of minorities by the Taliban is not a new issue; their elimination and demands for the payment of a jizya tax have been an ideological staple of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The plight of Christian, Hindu and Sikh minorities in and near Swat and the tribal areas is particularly precarious, with their livelihoods and day-to-day existence threatened by the encroaching presence of the Taliban.
Yet the Taliban are not the only threat to Pakistan’s religious and sectarian minorities. The past few months have seen the emergence of horrifying cases of systematised persecution of religious minorities.
These instances extend from the individual, such as the case of 12-year-old Shazia Masih who was allegedly tortured and killed while she was employed by a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, to cases such as that of Gojra and Korianwala where mobs were mobilised and Christians were burned alive in their homes.
The latest case of Siddiq Masih is an illustration of the lack of societal outrage against the persecution of minority groups. In this instance, the Punjab minister for prisons,Chaudhry Abdul Ghafoor, reportedly persuaded two Christian brothers to convert to Islam and transact a real estate deal that would hand over a 16-marla plot in Christian Colony owned by their brother Siddiq Masih.
According to some reports, the two brothers were addicted to drugs and wanted easy cash with which to procure them. In 2004 they converted to Islam and then produced fake ownership documents that showed them as the true owners of the land.
The deal did not go through as planned and in October 2009 the two accused their Christian brother of blasphemy and alleged that he had desecrated the Quran.
Siddiq Masih had already lodged a case against his brothers but provincial minister Abdul Ghafoor is now said to be involved in the case, and is reportedly pressing him to withdraw the case and turn the land over to his Muslim brothers — so that he may purchase it at a pittance.
If the story is true, and many insist it is, the case demonstrates the manner in which the blasphemy laws have become convenient instruments in the hands of anyone who chooses to target minorities.
These laws, contained in various sections of Pakistan’s criminal code, forbid the damaging or defiling of a place of worship (Section 295-A) and outraging religious feelings (Section 295). Section 295-C states: “Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”
The trial must be presided over by a Muslim judge in a sessions court. Defaming the Holy Prophet (pbuh) can lead to a death sentence and defaming the Quran can lead to life imprisonment.
In practice, evidentiary requirements for witnesses are sometimes relaxed by judges overcome by religious zeal to inflict punishment on the accused.
The blasphemy laws have thus in effect become legal tools allowing the majority religion to persecute minorities or the weak under pretextual charges of having defamed the Quran or the Holy Prophet.
Despite calls for the repeal of these laws from minority groups as well as human rights organisations, recent debates on the blasphemy laws are being directed toward the revision rather than repeal of existing legislation.
The appointed (rather than elected) minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, has promised that a “revised” blasphemy bill will be introduced in parliament later this year.
This move again reflects the lack of political will to take on Islamist political parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan, which has declared that no one “has the power to touch the blasphemy laws” and has threatened legislative and street protests if the revised bill is introduced.
All this despite the fact that scholars such as Asghar Ali Engineer have declared the current form of the laws to be un-Islamic in that they were introduced to legitimise Gen Ziaul-Haq’s regime, and make little effort to ascribe to the evidentiary or doctrinal standards of classical Islamic law.
If the Taliban kill minorities as part of their project to attack the Pakistani state, the Pakistani state in turn allows the perpetuation of a legal system that leaves minorities vulnerable to persecution at the whim of anyone who chooses to accuse them of blasphemy.
This juxtaposition blurs the moral lines between the state trying to maintain the rule of law, and anti-state forces such as the Taliban trying to destroy it. At the heart of the problem lies the assurance that the lives of minorities who are crushed between the barbarity of the Taliban and the corruption of the state are ultimately expendable and unworthy of protection.
The recent beheading reflects in gruesome detail the tyranny of the Taliban. But the continued existence of the blasphemy laws are perhaps equally damning indictments of the Pakistani state.
The writer is a US-based attorney and teaches constitutional law and political philosophy.