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Another death, another day

Another death, another day.

Another death, another day

Another death, another day

The Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was killed today in an attack on his vehicle in Islamabad.

Two gunmen fired on Bhatti’s vehicle in I-8/3 area of the capital. He was taken to the hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.

No surprises here. Another voice bold enough to speak out against the madness that has gripped the country has been silenced.

Bhatti, a Pakistani Christian, had been an outspoken critic of the misuse of the controversial Blasphemy Law and according to his colleagues he was facing death threats from those who just wanted him to shut up.

After former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer’s assassination at the hands of a uniformed extremist more than a month ago, Bhatti has become the second high profile victim of the violent fanaticism being demonstrated by those who want the Blasphemy Law to stay put, without any amendments whatsoever.

Why shouldn’t these madmen continue the way they have been so far – slaughtering innocent men in the name of faith, taking out highly-charged rallies condoning the murders and using mosques to announce their list of those who (according to them) are wajibul qatal.

Why shouldn’t they, indeed. Because who are they afraid of? Not the state, not the government, not the law. All three have simply capitulated in front of the psychosis that is ever so often being presented to us through TV talk shows, mosques and cyber space as the ‘true faith.’

Forget the state, the government and the law. One never knows where they stand on anything anyway. The government is weak and is more interested in its own Machiavellian survival, blackmailed into further submission and paranoia by an anarchic, double-talking group of allies and an opposition still stuck in limbo between Riyadh and Raiwind!

And the state? Well, what can be expected from a state that has a history of both creating and hosting exactly the kind of faith-driven lunacy each and every Pakistani is now engulfed in?

For years a convoluted narrative has been circulated by the state, the clergy, schools and now the electronic media: i.e. Pakistan was created in the name of Islam (read, a theocratic state). Thus, only Muslims (mainly orthodox Sunnis) have the right to rule, run and benefit from this country. ‘Minority’ religions and ‘heretical Islamic sects’, who are citizens of Pakistan are not to be trusted. They need to be isolated constitutionally, socially and culturally.

What else? Yes, parliamentary democracy too cannot be trusted. It unleashes ethnic forces, ‘corruption’ and undermines the role of the military and that of Islam in the state’s make-up. It threatens the ‘unity’ of the country; a unity based on a homogeneous understanding of Islam (mainly concocted by the state and its right-wing allies). Most of our political, economic and social ills are due to the diabolical conspiracies hatched by our many enemies.

Now the same state is struggling to control the glorified monsters that it created. These monsters have no fear of their creator. The state is hapless and stunned; only good to play silly games with its subjects. The Pakistani state is not grounded in reality. In fact it is not grounded at all. It is a fantasy that has now started to rot and look redundant. It is a 63-year-old daydream about being pious, just and strong. And yet it has been anything but.

No one trusts the Pakistani state anymore – ironically not even those who want to make Pakistan look and sound macho, ghiaratmand and devout.

Going fascist

So now I wonder, who applauded the killing of a ‘blasphemer’ this time.

Bhatti was shot not only because he was vocal about the controversies that surround and emerge from a man-made law that is considered divine, he was also shot because he was from a minority religion in this country.

By the way, men like Taseer too are a minority: an orthodox Sunni Muslim but secular and liberal. Think about it.

The state and its religious allies have for long collaborated to continue sidelining and alienating the non-Muslim and non-Sunni minorities, so much so that there are actually state-approved history text books out there which to allude them as enemies.

It seems as though Pakistan’s survival can only be justified by the number of enemies we can concoct. As if there is no honour in being a country that does not have or cannot make any enemies. The whole ‘jihad’ industry that we have constructed, the fatwah factories and an army of twisted apologists, their performance and credibility is measured by the number of ‘enemies’ they can either kill or pinpoint.

The bad news is that such beliefs are symptomatic of a society that has started to respond enthusiastically to the major symptoms of fascist thought.

Symptoms such as a xenophobic exhibition of nationalism, a disdain for the recognition of human rights, identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause, supremacy of the military, obsession with national security, the intertwining of religion and government, disdain for intellectuals and the arts, and an obsession with crime and punishment.

We do not debate. We only react and then huddle up behind our flimsy and lopsided historical and national narratives about ‘Pakistaniat’. We manifest our destiny as conquering Muslims, cursing the world for our ills, looking out for ‘infidels’ and ‘heretics’ among us, or for scapegoats in the shape of media-constructed punching bags.

We are going nowhere. We are only busy constructing walls around ourselves. Societies that do this have lost their will to keep up with and positively compete with the world at large. It begins to isolate itself, cut-off from the outside world and only allowing itself to be compared to its own mediocrities.

So then, the whole world is against us, right? But I am convinced once we have shut ourselves up from this cruel, scheming world, we will then turn on each another (actually, we already have).

The goras have to go, then the religious minorities, the Shias, the liberals, the Sindhis and the Baloch and the Pukhtuns, the Deobandies and the Wahabis, the Barelvies will then begin cleansing ‘bad Muslims’ from among themselves. Qadris vs. the Chishtis vs. the Naqshbandis, and so on and so forth.

Such madness can only vanish when it eats itself. Unfortunately, by then very few will be left to celebrate its end.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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The battle over blasphemy – Riz Khan

The battle over blasphemy – Riz Khan.


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Herald exclusive: Shrunken space

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via Herald exclusive: Shrunken space.

Herald exclusive: Shrunken space

By Nasir Jamal and Madiha Sattar | Herald Exclusive

Crushing the voice of reason: a massive rally in Karachi against amendments to the blasphemy law.

Holding a memorial reference for Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was shot dead on January 4 by a member of his security detail because of his stance against the blasphemy law, had not even been the original intent of the Citizens For Democracy (CFD). Founded in December last year as a network for those unhappy with the spread of religious extremism in Pakistan, and especially with the blasphemy law, at first its members wanted to hold a seminar on the law itself. They tried to book the auditorium at the Pakistan Institute for International Affairs in Karachi’s Saddar area, explains founding member Noman Quadri. They were refused. When Taseer was murdered and the issue became too hot to handle, the CFD decided to hold a memorial for him instead.

Initially the Karachi Arts Council agreed, but at the last minute withdrew. “They said they had received direct and indirect threats and had heard from sources that our event would be targeted,” says CFD member Beena Sarwar. The next stop was the Karachi Press Club, historically a place open to people who have all types of causes to publicise and injustices to protest. But press club officials refused to allow the CFD to hold the event at its premises, Quadri says . Tahir Hasan Khan, the president of the club, claims the CFD’s request was not turned down. According to him, given the sensitivity of the issue the administration needed to consult the club’s officials before arriving at a decision, which meant they could not say yes immediately. Insiders say the press club’s governing body was unwilling to give permission “because it could have threatened the club’s members”.

Sarwar believes the club did not need to consult its governing body. “We know that they can take such decisions without all that bureaucracy. They have done it many times in the past,” she says. For Quadri, then, the reason for the refusal was simple. “The club was not willing to host any event associated with Taseer or the blasphemy law,” he says.

The event was finally held at the offices of the Pakistan Medical Association. But the small space available there could not hold the crowd of about 500 that showed up, a literal manifestation of the shrinking space for moderate voices in Pakistani public discourse. Nor is this surprising when one considers how little Taseer’s own party has done to protect and expand this space. When Mumtaz Qadri publicly confessed to killing the governor, Taseer’s sympathisers were shocked to hear many Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leaders, including Babar Awan, the federal law minister, and Fauzia Wahab, the party’s information secretary, dubbing the killing a “political murder” instead of seeing it as an assassination carried out on religious grounds.

And after refraining from supporting Taseer on his stand on the blasphemy law while he was alive, the party is yet to officially organise a meeting or a reference in his honour. The only mention of his death in a party-organised event so far – apart from perfunctory messages of condolence from senior leaders and a week-long suspension of party activity – was when PPP co-chairperson Bilawal Bhutto addressed a London memorial reference for Taseer.

“The decision to not play up the religious side of the murder came from the top party leadership because the government cannot afford to open a new front with rightist groups and parties,” a PPP provincial leader from Lahore admits to the Herald. The party and its struggling government in Islamabad clearly do not want to be seen as pitching themselves against the religious right on the issue of the widespread misuse of the blasphemy law.

This reluctance to back Taseer’s views from one of the most liberal political parties in the country seems to be both a manifestation and a cause of the shrinking space for frank, rational debate on issues that are creating deep fissures in Pakistani society and ultimately leading to violence. “This is a message to all liberal and progressive people to keep quiet and scare and intimidate them,” Taseer’s daughter Sara told foreign media outlets after her father’s killing, “[it] is a message to every liberal [Pakistani] to shut up or be shot.” A Lahore-based political scientist who does not want to be named agrees with her. “The implications of Taseer’s murder by a religiously motivated man will be significant and far-reaching for our society, where religious conservatism is rapidly increasing because of the silence of successive governments on the issue in the past,” he says.

In the days immediately following Taseer’s murder, leaders of Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat Pakistan issued decrees against offering funeral prayers for Taseer or even expressing regret over his killing. Taking a cue from these statements, the khateeb of Lahore’s Badshahi Masjid and the imam of a mosque inside the Governor House, both government employees, refused to lead Taseer’s funeral prayers. A few weeks later, two senators refused to lead a prayer for the slain governor when the Senate met for the first time after his death. One of them, Professor Ibrahim, belongs to Jamaat-e-Islami while the other, Abdul Khaliq Peerzada, represents the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which prides itself on its liberal credentials. And when Islamabad-based CFD member Marvi Sirmed invited Senator Humayun Khan Mandokhel, an independent from Balochistan, to participate in a memorial service for Taseer, she received an alarming response. “[Taseer] met his fate. This is our religion. You have to accept it or leave Pakistan,” he told her.

Nor were ordinary citizens far behind. A group of lawyers cheered for Qadri and showered rose petals on him during his first appearance in an Islamabad court, and a number of rallies were taken out in various cities of Punjab by religious groups openly supporting him and his action. On social networking website Facebook, about 2,000 users hailed Qadri as a brave man willing to sacrifice everything to protect the honour of the Prophet of Islam, and that was before the group’s page was shut down. A large section of the media, particularly television channels, stopped far short of condemning the murderer and instead continued focusing on why Taseer was killed in the way that he was. Many regulars on talk shows and in newspapers’ opinion pages also focused on discussing the ‘crime’ he had committed by publicly supporting Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother condemned to death under the blasphemy law, rather than denouncing Qadri and his act. The advocates of amendments to or a repeal of the blasphemy law were painted negatively in the media, usually as intending blasphemers working on a foreign agenda to harm Islam and Muslims.

Urdu newspaper Ummat, for instance, translated an Observer article on former information minister Sherry Rehman, who has filed a bill to make amendments to the law, to imply that she had willingly and independently gone into exile in her home. This was emphasised several times in the translation despite the fact that the original article had described how threats against her life have been pouring in and the government has instructed her to provide a 48-hour notice before leaving home. Another Urdu newspaper mistranslated a New York Times article on Taseer by his daughter Shehrbano in such a way that she began to receive threats in response to it (the newspaper later fired the subeditor responsible for the translation).

“Religious intolerance has become a way of life for many of us in Pakistan,” says a Christian-rights activist who requested anonymity. “People are scared of speaking or writing on issues such as the shabby state of religious minorities in Pakistan. Taseer’s assassination will certainly add to the existing repressive atmosphere and make things more difficult for those who are working to realise the ideal of a tolerant, progressive society for all citizens of Pakistan,” he adds, saying the governor had won Christian hearts by espousing Aasia’s cause.

But even though Pakistani Christians feel strongly for Taseer and his family, they have not organised public events to pay tribute to him because they have been “advised against it”, he explains. “Church leaders don’t want the murder and their opposition to the blasphemy laws to be seen as a Christian-Muslim issue. That is why public displays of emotion on his death were avoided. We cannot afford to invite trouble. Our community has already lost a lot in violent attacks on its members and churches in Punjab and elsewhere in recent years.”

Civil society activists, Taseer’s friends and his close relatives have been able to organise candlelight vigils in Lahore, Islamabad and elsewhere in the country, and a handful of liberal politicians and human rights activists have spoken out on television talk shows in his favour. But that has been the extent of the public protest. “It is time for progressive elements to sit back and reconsider their strategy for countering the growing power of conservative forces in society, especially in the media, rather than indulge in any adventurism,” advises the analyst from Lahore. According to him, the most important task at hand for them is to see to it that Qadri is punished for taking the law into his own hands.

But it is unclear whether the state is powerful enough or has the courage to punish Taseer’s murderer. Police officers investigating the case are said to have received threats to their lives and the prosecution has been unable to find lawyers. “Few lawyers, if any, would want to represent the state in this case because of possible threats,” says an Islamabad-based reporter who has been covering the proceedings of Taseer murder case. He claims the majority of lawyers from the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, including those belonging to Punjab’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz, are supportive of Qadri, which prevents others from taking the risk of representing the prosecution. “Even the judiciary is scared of hearing the case for similar reasons and because of the active backing of Qadri and his instigators by religious parties and groups,” he adds.

More than anyone else, it is Taseer’s family that is facing a real threat, says a businessman close to them. They are said to be shunning any interaction with the domestic media for fear of stoking a new controversy. After the mistranslation of Shehrbano’s article, “they have decided to stay away from the media,” he confirms. Although they did not agree, he adds that “some people had even advised Taseer’s wife and children to quietly leave the country for some time and return when the issue is forgotten.” If Taseer’s assassination underscores anything, then, it is the Pakistani state’s increasing inability to take on extremist violence, and its helplessness in protecting those who differ from a narrow interpretation of religion that seems to be becoming mainstream.

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Herald Exclusive: The law of diminishing utility

Dawn.com is your source for the latest breaking news, current events and top stories from Pakistan, South Asia and the world.

via Herald Exclusive: The law of diminishing utility.

Herald Exclusive: The law of diminishing utility

By Asad Jamal | Herald Exclusive

What the history of blasphemy cases in Pakistan overwhelmingly points to is the suffering of those who languish for years in jail because of faulty trials and biased proceedings.

Zaibunnisa was jailed in 1996 on blasphemy charges when Qari Hafeez, a cleric from Lahore, complained to the police that he had found torn pages of the Quran thrown in a drain. A medical board declared her mentally ill soon after her arrest, but she was still incarcerated. It was only in July 2010, 14 years after she was first sent behind bars, that the Lahore High Court ordered her release, but not on medical grounds. Her lawyer had convinced the court that there was no evidence linking her to the crime. After she was freed, Hafeez told the media that he had not named her as an offender and a police official reportedly told journalists that she had been arrested to defuse tension that had developed in the area over the defiling of the Quran.

That an innocent, mentally-challenged woman had to spend nearly a decade and a half in prison because the police made her a scapegoat is as much a comment on the ideological biases of judges, lawyers and law-enforcement agencies as it is a description of the multiple pressures they face in blasphemy cases. In almost all these cases, trial courts are either unwilling to give the accused the benefit of the doubt or are under pressure to dispense strict punishment even when, as in Zaibunnisa’s trial, evidence is not solid and incriminating.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer Abid Hassan Minto tells the Herald that hers is not an isolated case. “Many blasphemy cases go on for years,” he says. “Sometimes even bail applications are not taken up because judges and prosecution lawyers use delaying tactics to keep the accused in jail as long as they possibly can without his or her trial reaching a conclusion.” Naeem Shakir, a senior lawyer based in Lahore who has served as defence counsel in dozens of blasphemy cases, says the prosecution and even judges do not really want those accused of blasphemy to get justice. “Short of awarding the death penalty instantly, both lawyers and judges want to prolong the agony of the accused to the maximum,” he says.

The case of Wajihul Hasan, booked under blasphemy charges in 1999, tells a similar story. He could not get bail because the complainant, Lahore-based lawyer Ismail Qureshi, who is known for his extreme religious views, wields considerable influence in both the bench and the bar. A trial court awarded Hasan the death penalty in 2002, but no judgment was made on his appeal to the Lahore High Court (LHC) until 2010. It came as no surprise that Justice Ijaz Ahmed Chaudhry, the recently appointed LHC chief justice, upheld Hasan’s sentence and in his verdict praised Qureshi for his services to Islam and the cause of the honour of the Prophet of Islam. An appeal is now pending in the Supreme Court.

Aside from verdicts influenced by personal ideologies or external pressure, Shakir says blasphemy accused and their lawyers also face an extremely hostile situation within and outside courtrooms. “When I was defending Salamat Masih in a Gujranwala sessions court (see “Law Unto Themselves”) the entire passage from the court’s main gate to the door of the courtroom would be full of people carrying placards and banners demanding death for my client and raising incessant slogans against him as well as me.” At one stage, he says, the atmosphere became so aggressive that they had to ask the high court to shift the trial from Gujranwala to Lahore.

But Shakir says the situation is hardly different in Lahore. “During one hearing the prosecution produced some evidence, and when I wanted to see it the crowd in the courtroom made so much noise that the judge stopped me from taking notes on it and took it back from me,” he says. According to him, this was a clear violation of legal procedures that stipulate that no framing of charges can be complete unless the accused and his counsel hear all the charges and see the entire body of evidence. Shakir also claims that he and his family faced threats to their lives while he was working as defence counsel for another blasphemy accused, Gul Masih. “I became so scared for my son that I made it a point that he never went out unaccompanied.”

Apart from being under pressure due to this hostile environment, judges have also been swayed by their religious bias while deciding blasphemy cases. In two cases filed under the same subsection of the blasphemy laws, a court applied different yardsticks for a Muslim and a Christian. In 2008, Khwaja Sharif, the outgoing LHC chief justice, did not quash a case against a Christian woman, Martha Bibi, even after her counsel cited an earlier decision in which the same judge had quashed a case against one Qari Mohammad Yunus on the grounds, among others, that the complaint was not registered with the permission of the government, even though 295-C cases do not carry this requirement (see “What the Law Says”).

Tahir Iqbal’s case is another instance of how prominently personal biases figure in blasphemy cases. A Muslim who converted to Christianity, Iqbal was arrested under blasphemy charges in Lahore in December 1990. He was denied bail despite his lawyer’s contention that his client was paralytic. The sessions court judge who dismissed the bail application on July 7, 1991 passed the following order: “Learned counsel for the petitioner has conceded before me that the petitioner has converted to Christianity. With this admission on the part of petitioner’s counsel there is no need to probe further into the allegations… Since conversion from Islam to Christianity is in itself a cognisable offence involving serious implication, I do not consider the petitioner entitled to the concession of bail at this stage.” The judge was unaware, and did not want to be informed, that there is no law in Pakistan that makes conversion from Islam to any other religion an offence. In July 1992, Iqbal was found dead in jail under mysterious circumstances. His lawyer believes he was poisoned.

In at least one blasphemy case, the high court recorded in detail how the sessions court had completely disregarded legal procedure. When Salamat Masih, a 13-year-old Christian, appealed against his 1995 death sentence, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti of the LHC pointed out glaring gaps in the trial, declaring that the sessions court had disregarded legal requirements for examining and verifying evidence and had based its judgment on tenuous grounds. Bhatti was later gunned down for exonerating Salamat Masih and his co-accused (see “Law Unto Themselves”).

This is not the only case in which a higher court of appeal has noted inconsistencies in the trial at the lower level. In 16 out of 17 reported blasphemy cases in which final verdicts have been announced by the High Court, Federal Shariat Court or Supreme Court since 1980, the accused were acquitted. In all 16 cases, appellate courts pointed out weaknesses and flaws in the prosecution’s case and pointed to the questionable veracity of evidence as a major factor in final acquittals. They also found various violations of legal procedure and other problems with investigations, collection of evidence and preparation of the prosecution’s case that proved instrumental in defeating or weakening the case. In two-thirds of the cases, courts found that personal enmity, religious rivalry and property disputes were important factors in the registration of blasphemy cases in the first place.

But in many cases, intimidation does not end even after punishment has been meted out. Despite having served their sentences, convicts in blasphemy cases live under perpetual fear for their lives. Amin Masih, 45, was convicted for blasphemy in 1999 and awarded imprisonment. His appeal was never taken up. He completed his sentence in 2004, but even now he cannot return to his village. The last time he met his old parents was seven years ago. He does not meet any of his brothers and sisters and does not attend family get-togethers for fear of being hunted down. He now lives under an assumed identity after a minority rights organisation got him a new job and a new residence.

His case offers clear insight into the problems with blasphemy-case trials. First, a mob mobilised through mosques gathered to kill him immediately after his business competitor alleged that he had committed blasphemy. It was only after some village elders took him into their protective custody that his life was saved. Once the trial began, religious activists would throng the courtroom during each hearing. His appeal against conviction was never taken up by the high court.

That Amin Masih will immediately run into trouble if he goes back to his village is evident from what happened to Zahid Shah. A resident of Chak Jhumra near Faisalabad, Shah was charged under the blasphemy laws soon after converting to Christianity. His family claimed he was mentally unstable. In 1997 he was granted bail but still had to stay away from his village and relatives for the next several years. When finally he returned in July 2002, he was dragged out of his brother’s house by a mob that beat him with iron rods and stoned him to death.

What the history of blasphemy cases in Pakistan overwhelmingly points to is the suffering of those who languish for years in jail because of faulty trials, biased proceedings, hostile crowds howling in and outside courtrooms, and inordinate delays in the hearing of appeals. All this makes these cases a nightmare not just for the accused but also for any defence counsels. There are only a handful of lawyers among thousands of trained attorneys in Lahore who are willing to defend those accused of blasphemy in a court of law, Shakir tells the Herald.

All this leads to the most important question about the blasphemy laws: Have they discouraged incidents of blasphemy or have they simply contributed to the fracturing of society? “We need to ponder over whether these laws are creating social and religious harmony or dividing society into religions and sects and putting people into the conflicting categories of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal,’” says Yunus Alam, who heads the Multan-based Minority Rights Commission of Pakistan. Data suggests that the number of registered blasphemy cases has increased consistently with every passing decade since the 1980s (see “Law Unto Themselves”), and extrajudicial killings, mob justice and unfair trials suggest that they have become tools for religious persecution, minority-bashing and, of late, suppressing freedom of speech. n

— Asad Jamal is a Lahore-based lawyer who deals with minorities and other human rights issues

— Additional reporting by Muhammad Badar Alam

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Herald exclusive: What the law says

Dawn.com is your source for the latest breaking news, current events and top stories from Pakistan, South Asia and the world.

via Herald exclusive: What the law says.

Herald exclusive: What the law says

By Asad Jamal | Herald Exclusive 


Pressure point: public protests deter judges and lawyers from providing fair trials to those accused of blasphemy.

Section 295: Harming or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult a religion

Section 295-A: Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any section of society by insulting its religion or religious beliefs

Section 295-B: Defiling the Holy Quran

Section 295-C: Use of derogatory remarks regarding the Holy Prophet of Islam

Section 296: Disturbing religious assembly

Section 297: Trespassing on burial places

Section 298: Uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings

Section 298-A: Use of derogatory remarks regarding holy personages

Section 298-B: Misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles reserved for certain holy personages or places

Section 298-C: Person of Ahmadi group calling himself a Muslim or preaching or propagating his faith

Out of all these laws, only Section 295-C – use of derogatory remarks about the Holy Prophet of Islam – carries the death penalty. Others carry various punishments including imprisonment and fines.

Section 295-C is different from other blasphemy laws in another respect. Section 196 (prosecution of offences against the State) of the Criminal Procedure Code bars courts from taking cognisance of certain offences unless the complaint is made on the order of, or under authority from, the government, presumably so that laws governing such offences are not misused. After Section 295-A was introduced in the PPC in 1927, Section 196 was amended to cover it as well. But such a course was not adopted when Section 295-C was introduced, thereby allowing the courts to take cognisance of crimes under this section without requiring the government’s order or authority.

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