Monday, March 31, 2014


Sawan Masih: Another injustice in the name of justice!

31 March 2014
Like our public, our judiciary appears to be biased against minorities as well. But in cases such as Sawan Masih's, there is more than prejudice involved in the miscarriage of justice. There is fear.
It appears that the public would rather Sawan jaey, than Sawan aaey.
Sawan Masih, 26-years-old, a poor cleaner and the father of two, was arrested last year for allegedly uttering blasphemous remarks during an argument. 
He protested his innocence saying that there was a property dispute concealed under the accusation of blasphemy but to no avail. Sawan and his family lived in Lahore’s Joseph Colony with other Christian families, clustered together for safety.
Unfortunately, the numbers on ‘the other side’ were far greater.
When the above event occurred, a mob composed of some 3,000 people attacked Joseph Colony for several days, forcing the inhabitants to leave. When this mob destroyed a hundred homes and some churches, they were not considered to have committed blasphemy.
In stark contrast, when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself was attacked every day by an old woman and she failed to appear one day, he actually visited her to make sure she was okay.
The events surrounding Sawan Masih’s arrest created two separate sets of law suits – the first against the people who destroyed Joseph Colony and the other against Sawan Masih himself. Of the first, some of the people have been released on bail while cases against the rest are still in progress very, very slowly.
However, in the second case, that of Sawan’s, the courts moved much faster towards an even more questionable judgement. He was sentenced to death last Thursday by the additional district and session’s court and fined Rs200, 000.
Should anyone be sentenced to death without material evidence and on such grounds?
Although death sentences are rarely carried out in Pakistan and Masih is entitled to two, if not three appeals in higher courts of law, it is unlikely that his family will be able to pay the fine and it’s very likely that this father of two will languish in prison like Aasia Bibi, also accused of blasphemy before him.
Like our public, our judiciary appears to be biased against minorities as well. But in cases such as these, there is more than prejudice involved in the miscarriage of justice. There is fear.
Not everyone is as brave as Salman Taseer.
Sawan heard the verdict against him in jail because the judge said it was unsafe for Masih to appear in court that day. Judges are also afraid for their own safety in cases such as these. Remember, this is the same issue which led to the murder of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, when he criticised the country’s blasphemy laws following Aasia Bibi’s arrest, after which even lawyers from the Punjab Bar Council garlanded the man wielding the gun that killed him. A couple of months later, the Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also shot when he spoke against Aasia Bibi’s arrest.
Punjab has seen the most persons accused under the blasphemy laws of the country and many of those accused have been children.
Everything about these cases is bizarre such as when a mentally challenged child was accused of blasphemy and arrested. However, equally bizarre statements from the ‘other side’ go unchallenged such as when the prominent leader of a religious party called for a major religious book that Muslims believe in too, to be banned, saying that it contained ‘blasphemous’ material.
Moreover, repercussions on accused persons have been dire. At best, they are forced to flee the country while others languish in jail such as Aasia Bibi. And a far more unfortunate many are killed while in custody or still on the outside.
However, in several of these cases it was not just the accused who was killed but also the judge when he failed to sentence the accused to death. It is for this reason that blasphemy cases are often passed down like hot potatoes to lower courts until finally one does the dirty work by passing a death sentence like in Sawan’s case. The case is then passed up again for an appeal.
Injustice, then, is no surprise.
Aristotle once rightly said,
“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.”
And this is what we have become.
The people of any country look to the courts to provide them with justice and to the security forces to maintain peace. When a country is paralysed by militants, and courts and peacekeeping forces are unable to function, it leads to schisms – this side versus that side. It leads to unrest and lowered morale. And if there is no guarantee of protection or justice, for minorities or majorities, people tend to take the law into their own hands.
There is something about justice that we all need to understand – it must be seen to happen otherwise it leads to unrest. On the other hand, when it is so clearly seen not to happen, it leads to much worse than mere unrest.

Monday, March 3, 2014

In Karachi, buses are loaded as never in Lahore and each one bears signs of being burnt or smashed.There is no rapid transit bus system, such as Lahore possesses, no clampdown on late and noisy wedding such as in Lahore and no controls on the menu.
If blasphemy is defined as ‘irreverent behaviour towards anything sacred’, Karachi is blasphemous; a city where something as sacred as human life is irreverently and disdainfully extinguished.
As January limped to a close, three health workers administering anti-polio drops to children were shot dead. Bullet-ridden bodies of three young men were discovered and a police officer was gunned down in a suspected targeted attack.
And yet, it is in Karachi, much more so than in Lahore, that bastion of sharafat (respectability) that strangers smile at you, people say thank you for services rendered or stand aside and allow you to pass. In this sense, it is hard to decide where the blasphemy lies.
Karachi’s heritage including the Empress Market, Frere Hall, Jinnah’s home and Mohatta Palace has been lovingly preserved. When the Indus Valley School was founded by a group of concerned citizens in 1989, the building was transported to the site brick by brick from a location further away.
Karachi is where enterprise is most valued.
It is home to some of the country’s oldest and best newspapers and magazines; its businessmen are the best in the country. Rarely in Karachi does one encounter the Lahori shopkeeper picking his teeth or worse while a customer fruitlessly searches the shelves.
While Lahoris reel from the food street wars and meet over three-tiered trolleys in ornate drawing rooms, you meet friends in Karachi at a show or over a dossa or cappuccino at one of its innumerable cafes. What’s more, you go there without dolling up, in the same clothes you’ve been wearing since yesterday and without blonde streaks in your hair.
Yes, blasphemy is a many faceted word, and Karachi a multifaceted city.
In Karachi, I saw a little ragged boy no more than six-years-old, weave through cars to a water tanker to fill a can from a tap set into its side. The driver leant out but did not stop the child; the urchin grinned in thanks and darted back before the traffic light turned green.
The whole incident was so illustrative of the symbiotic relationships that thrive in this massive city seemingly so alive but where nothing would survive if such relationships did not exist. All it needs is peace for its enterprise to flourish; a peace that appears to be extinct.
Violence is the old man on this Sindbad’s shoulder, slowly throttling it to death.
It would be a rare Karachiite who has not had his purse or phone snatched, his car taken away at gunpoint or his home broken into by armed men. You live in this city alongside gun battles, strikes and public transport shut-downs. Car owners skirt troubled areas with practiced ease while those who use public transport are forced to take expensive rickshaws instead of buses to work and back. On the worst occasions, neither buses and rickshaws, nor cars can run. Absenteeism in schools and workplaces is high.
In Karachi’s Defence and Clifton, there is no Shahbaz Sharif to focus manically on a few issues. Even these ‘elite’ areas are dirty with large tracts of windblown rubbish dumps; the overwhelming issues of the people of Landhi, Korangi and Lyari are beyond the imagination and remit of this piece.
In Karachi, buses are loaded as never seen in Lahore and each one bears signs of being burnt or smashed at some point. There is no rapid transit bus system such as the one Lahore possesses, no clampdown on late and noisy wedding parties such as in Lahore and no controls on the menu.
Will Karachi ever be able to shake the old man off like Sindbad did?
My hopes are pinned on that boy with the jerry can.
It is from such roots that many of Karachi’s entrepreneurs have sprung up and many of its volunteers and workers, such as those who run the Edhi ambulances, go where no man would care to go. Maybe that child’s native ingenuity and of those like him can weave a path around Karachi’s troubles in a way that more privileged scions cannot do, before the lights turn red forever on this tortured but still pulsing port city.
Karachi encapsulates the entire gamut of problems that separately beset the country; overwhelming problems relating to ethnic and religious diversity, poverty and above all, an absence of governance.
The result is its dire absence of security.
In Lahore, one is able to catch a glimpse of what can be achieved in however small a way when someone, anyone, cares, for however selfish a reason.
That is the difference that makes all the difference.
It is also what makes Lahore the better place to live, despite all Karachi’s attractions, interests and dynamism.