In August 2012, Rimsha Masih was arrested on blasphemy charges. At the time, Masih was only 14 years old. She had allegedly desecrated the pages of Holy Quran by burning them.

But what really went down?

A local Muslim boy, Hammad, had asked Rimsha Masih to hand over the trash bag she was carrying. He inspected it and took the bag to the cleric of the local mosque named Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti. As evidence against the girl, Chishti showed a few burned pages of the Holy Scripture to the police. As this incident came to light, there was a collective outrage from the local Muslims. And as narrated by Mohammad Hanif in an article for The Guardian, 300 local Christian families were forced to escape their residence and seek refuge in a forest in Islamabad.


Chishti told AFP News that he thought Rimsha had ‘“deliberately” burnt the pages as part of a Christian “conspiracy” to insult Muslims and that action against such activities should have been taken “sooner”.

Resultantly, minor Rimshah Masih was arrested. She spent more than three weeks on remand in an adult jail. During her trial, her age was evaluated through medical reports that concluded it to be 14 but with a “mental age younger than that”. This supported the claims of Masih being a child with Down’s Syndrome that the accuser’s lawyer rejected stating that the doctors are “favouring the victim and the state is also supporting her”.

Rimsha was released on bail the following month of September after the police clarified in court that she was not guilty of the accusations made against her and that it was, in fact, the cleric himself who allegedly conspired against the young girl.

But did Rimsha Masih get justice in the face of a false blasphemy case?

Following Rimsha Masih’s acquittal, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti was arrested. Several witnesses against him were taken into record. It was claimed that Chishti had included the Holy Scriptures in the trash bag himself in order to portray Rimsha as the desecrator. The witnesses also claimed that Chishti believed that this was the only way to drive out Christians from their community.

This meant that Chishti himself was now guilty of desecrating the Holy Scripture. The-then Investigation Officer (IO) Munir Jafferi, while talking to The Express Tribune, said that Chishti could be sentenced to life imprisonment if convicted of desecrating the Holy Book.

He was sent on 14-day judicial remand under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code.

By 2013, Rimsha Masih and her family escaped to Canada because even in her innocence, she was not safe in Pakistan. They were given permanent Canadian residency on “humanitarian and compassionate grounds”.

All the while, that same year, all witnesses against Chishti withdrew their claims, and thus, the court dismissed all charges against him.

History of Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan

In 1860, the British colonisers introduced the Indian Penal Code. It consisted of a chapter that criminalised offences relating to religion in order to counter Muslim-Hindu-Sikh conflict in the Indian Subcontinent:
Section 295, Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class
Section 296, Disturbing religious assembly
Section 297, Trespassing on burial places, etc.–Whoever, with the intention of wounding the feelings of any person (Section 297)
Section 298, Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings

But in 1927, the laws buoyed out as vague clauses were added in the Penal Code, further deregulating the conflicts. As per 295 A, “Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” was also a punishable offence.

It is to note that the maximum punishment under these laws was from one year to a maximum of 10 years in jail, with or without a fine.

In some instances, people took the law into their own hands. A case often recounted from the pre-partitioned India is of an objectionable book on Islam. It was written by a man named Pandat Chamupatt but anonymously published. The publisher was a journalist, Mahashe Rajpal, who owned a publishing house called ‘Rajpal & Sons’.

The book was deemed as blasphemous by Muslims. Lawsuit against the publisher was filed under section 153 A: “Promoting enmity between different groups on ground of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc.” Punjab High Court in Lahore, however, acquitted the publisher of the charges on “technical grounds” since the law did not highlight ‘adverse discussions of the life and character of a deceased religious leader’.

The British Raj then made amendments to the law and included section 295-A to punish “deliberate acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any community… by words, either spoken or written”.

The acquittal, nonetheless, led to protests, criticism, and threats; and after several failed attempts, the editor of the publishing house was assassinated in 1929.

The next reported case was in Karachi in 1934. Nathu Ram, an active member of Arya Samaj, too, had allegedly written an objectionable book on the history of Islam.

This, once again, prompted an angry reaction by the Muslims. After a trial, he was imprisoned for a year and fined for his offence. Ram had filed an appeal in the court but during one of his hearings in March 1936, he was attacked and killed.

His killer was a man named Abdul Qayum from Hazara from the North West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Muslims back then gave him the status of Ghazi and a shrine was built after his death.

Even then, however, killings over blasphemy were comparatively a rarity.

Post-1947, with Muslims and Hindus officially divided, the anti-blasphemy laws remained intact in Pakistan.

These laws were cemented under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq.

General Zia made changes to the Penal Code and added five new clauses between 1980 to 1986, including:
295 B, which criminalises the desecration of the Quran.
295 C, which criminalises with life imprisonment or the death penalty any direct or indirect desecration of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
298 A, which criminalises direct or indirect desecration of wives and relatives of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

At first, section 295-C only contained life imprisonment as the punishment for blasphemy but it was replaced with death penalty as the parliamentarians pushed it on the basis of ijma (consensus of Islamic scholars). The Federal Shariat Court (FSC), too, defended the death penalty for blasphemy even though four out of seven ulemas that were consulted by the FSC opposed the ruling. The opponents of the death penalty included Jamaat-e-Islami’s founder, Maulana Maududi; head of the Barelvi sect, Ahmad Raza Khan; and the head of the Deobandi sect, Mahmood Deobandi.

They all agreed that blasphemy was a pardonable offence and that “death penalty cannot be given for single offences”.

In 2010, Dawn published an article tracing the qualitative results of the anti-blasphemy laws. While less than 10 cases of blasphemy were reported between 1927 and 1986; post-1986, as many as 4,000 cases were recorded. Then, between 1988 and 2005, 647 people were charged out of which 50 percent were non-Muslim. More than 20 people have been murdered for alleged blasphemy.

49 per cent of 361 cases of blasphemy offences registered between 1986 and 2007 were against non-Muslims even though non-Muslims make less than four per cent of the total population.

The situation began to worsen in 2011 with the murder of former governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, who was vocal against the anti-blasphemy laws and supported Asia Bibi who was then given death penalty for committing blasphemy (but acquitted in 2019). Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was arrested and was later hanged but he became a hero to many who hailed him for his deed. More than 100,000 people attended his funeral and his shrine is still visited by hundreds.

Lawyer Asad Jamal recalls the day after Salmaan Taseer’s death. He was on Mall Road, Lahore, where he spoke with sepoys regarding Taseer’s murder. “No one wanted to condemn the act”, he still remembers. “It was very telling of the direction the country was heading towards.”

Since 2011, the number in cases, accusations, and killings have increased. In a report by Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), as of 2021, 43 people have been extrajudicially killed since 2011 and 1,185 accused.

When it comes to the role of lawyers and judges in blasphemy cases, Jamal believes that it is simply reflective of the socio-political situation of Pakistan. The state of affairs have worsened over the past 20 years. Apart from frail economy and political rifts, there is a major element of fundamentalism that comes in the shape of parties like TLP and their massive support.

“Such an environment doesn’t encourage a lot of lawyers to take up blasphemy cases.”

He also adds that very few lawyers have “worthwhile legal skills” to take up blasphemy cases. Many simply do not want to deal with these issues. People like Asma Jahangir and Abid Hasan Minto were not mainstream but exceptions. Apart from being courageous, they were competent. “But now, the times have changed,” he adds.

Peter Jacob, a human rights activist and the director of Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), says that while some politicians condemn violence against the minorities like the recent Jaranwala case, it, nonetheless, always has a cost one has to bear due to the sensitivity of the matter.

While talking about the youth belonging to religious minorities, Jacob has noticed a segment within Christians and Hindus who are actively participating in political discussions on- and offline. The examples are the recent protests held in various cities across Pakistan, including Karachi, Lahore, Swat, Kurram district, and Rawalpindi against the Jaranwala incident.

“I am quite impressed by their sense of belonging and their affiliation with the case of a better Pakistan, their respect for human rights and democracy. Civil liberty will play a role of a natural healer — healing of the society and articulation of the way forward out of these troubled times,” he added.

Jacob, however, believes that there has to be resolve at the national level by powerful quarters to understand the height of radicalisation that has taken place in order to control the lethality of the problem. “While there is political fragmentation, a free and fair atmosphere must be created where political forces can play their role and come up with people-centric solutions that will entail the process of self-healing and accountability.”