South Asia is a rainbow of religious diversity. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Maldives have officially adopted Islam as their state religion, a religion followed by more than 90% of the population. Bhutan and Sri Lanka are predominantly Buddhist. India and Nepal are secular where Hinduism is predominant. Despite this deeply rooted diversity as old as the civilization of this land, it is tragic that incidents of blasphemy frequently evoke mob violence in this region.
Afghanistan has had a rich history of Buddhist influence, but today Islam is followed by over 99% of the population. Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs are only a few hundred. Despite this majority, Afghanistan imposes the death penalty in accordance with Sharia on anyone considered blasphemous against Islam. This stands in stark contrast to how the Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up by the Taliban but not considered an act of blasphemy.
Pakistan’s Penal Code imposes severe penalties, including life imprisonment and death, for those who commit blasphemy against “recognized” religions, the Quran and the Prophet respectively. The law is often used to settle personal scores. Minorities, including Ahmaddiyas and Shias, bear the brunt of this draconian law. Asia Bibi is a Christian who was accused of blasphemy by Muslim colleagues in 2010, which led to the death sentence. While Asia somehow saved her life, Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer were assassinated for speaking out against Asia’s death sentence. A decade later, a Sri Lankan national was burned to death in Sialkot as the proud participants in the vigilante attack broadcast the barbarity live.
Secularism has been instilled in the preamble of the Indian Constitution and constitutes its basic structure. India’s religious diversity brings a lot of tension between religious communities. Section 153(A) of the Indian Penal Code makes blasphemy a hate speech offence, while Section 295(A) directly makes blasphemy an offense punishable by up to three years in prison. . Blasphemy in India has caused political rigging at best and rioting at worst.
Mob violence against those accused of blasphemy has increased, as evidenced by numerous lynchings over allegations of eating beef or slaughtering cattle. This has even led to beef bans in some states as the cow is a sacred animal for Hindus and Jains. Profanity can even lead to communal riots. Although this has led to calls for anti-blasphemy laws, there is virtually no political will since blasphemy is an easy political tool to evoke passions that can be used by anyone at any time.
Bangladesh emerged in 1971 uniting everyone regardless of religion and ethnicity. But it didn’t take long for Islam to be declared the state religion, relegating non-Muslims to second-class status. Section 295(A) of the Penal Code of Bangladesh makes blasphemy an offence. The expulsion of writer and activist Taslima Nasreen for her books marked Bangladesh’s march down the sectarian path of using profanity as a political tool which reached ugly forms leading to multiple riots and attacks on the minority in over the years.
Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan have also experienced intermittent violence following allegations of insult to one religion or the other, but the problem is not as acute in these countries as in the countries discussed. above.
Blasphemy as a concept does not exist in Indian religions because dharma and karma automatically decide the direction of an individual’s life. While Abrahamic religions view blasphemy as a strict departure from duty to the god, many Western countries protect blasphemy under freedom of speech or have abolished blasphemy laws. Despite strong protests in the Islamic world, France refused to ban the publication of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, citing its motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”.
Modern countries have no place for blasphemy in their penal codes. Freedom of speech and expression inherently guarantees the freedom to question, criticize and raise objections to religions and religious practices. No religion is so fragile that a few words or caricatures threaten its principles and alter its character. Blasphemy is used as a shield by conservatives against reformists to stop reforms that help make society more egalitarian and enlightened. It is used as a tool to inflame feelings and incite violence for the personal interests of the few.
A society tainted with blasphemy is a society obsessed with religion. This century is the century of high technology and no country can afford to remain entangled in medieval issues like blasphemy and sacrilege. Governments across South Asia need to show stronger political will against violence and unrest related to communal and religious issues.
The future of South Asia
The rich history and diversity of South Asia should not become a baggage, but rather an asset. A region that is the poorest after sub-Saharan Africa has many issues to focus on, with profanity having the luxury of being ignored. The region can transform into a peaceful, prosperous and progressive region where the freedom and dignity of every individual is valued and where debate and dialogue form the basis of religious discourse and not violence, fanaticism and violence.
*About the author: The author, who holds an M.Com degree from Hindu College, Delhi University, closely follows global geopolitics, international relations, diplomacy and security studies. Views are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected]
Source: This article was published by South Asia Monitor