Friday 26 May 2017 News Updated at 03:05 AM IST
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Rupturing social fabric - Deccan Herald
Rupturing social fabric
Vivek Katju,
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(The writer is retired Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)
Pakistan has witnessed vigilante action against suspected blasphemers of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad since the mid 1980s. Over the past decade, Bangladesh has seen Islamic vigilantism against liberals and minority individuals. There have been recent cases of cow vigilantism in some parts of India. Some sections of Indian opinion fear that it may go down the path of its western and eastern neighbours.

Many countries experience vigilantism against criminals either by way of spontaneous mob action or more often arising from a deep dissatisfaction with the state's criminal justice system. However, vigilantism can also spring from growing intolerance rooted in extreme and often violent interpretations of faith.

The latter is especially dangerous, for it can rupture the social fabric. If a state tolerates such forms of vigilantism, for whatsoever reason, its polity too is damaged. How do India, Pakistan and Bangladesh measure on the basis of these observations?

Pakistan aspires to be a moderate and progressive Islamic country. However, its political class and the army have allowed the extreme religions of the Arabian Peninsula to erode the traditional and more tolerant forms of the Islamic faith that were widespread in South Asia.

The process began early after Partition and gathered steam from the 1970s. General Zia-ul-Haq put the country, including the army, firmly in pursuit of more rigid and sharper forms of Islam. He also made capital punishment mandatory for blasphemy. This was only a manifestation of a deeper social process. This opened the gates for the misuse of blasphemy laws against the weak, including the minorities. Often, blasphemy accusations were made for personal gain or to settle scores and mobs were incited to vigilante violence against the innocent or the mentally disturbed.

Since the late 1980s, over 1,300 blasphemy cases have been registered and more than 60 suspected blasphemers have been killed by vigilantes. Worse, law enforcement personnel, local police, lawyers and judges have been intimidated by the vigilantes. Only some Pakistani vigilante cases have drawn national and international attention. Among them, the 2011 murders of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Pakistan's Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti. Last month, the gruesome murder of Mashal Khan, a young student in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the killing in Punjab by three sisters of Fazal Abbas, a middle-aged man accused of blasphemy 13 years ago, has shaken Pakistan's small liberal community.

Taseer was murdered by his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri. He was enraged that Taseer had sympathised with a woman accused of blasphemy. This act should have led to Qadri's complete social condemnation. Instead, he was showered with rose petals on his way to court and gained wide social support. He was convicted and executed in March 2016 and protest demonstrations were held across Pakistan. Today, his grave on the outskirts of Islamabad has become the shrine of a martyr attracting donations for the construction of a mausoleum.

Mashal Khan was brutally tortured and killed by his fellow students in his hostel room. They suspected him of posting blasphemous material on social media. He was innocent. Perhaps, his free spirit angered his peers whose young minds were poisoned by bigotry. After killing Abbas in cold blood, the three sisters expressed joy that they had now done what they could not have earlier, as they were too young when he had supposedly blasphemed. Again, the poison of bigotry at work.

Bangladesh's Islamic vigilantism has targeted bloggers advocating democracy and civil liberties, as well as persons, including Hindus, who have 'insulted' Islam and, in a few cases, persons with differently sexual orientation. Since 2010, around 35 people have been killed in vigilante acts. Bangladesh authorities deny the presence of IS or the al-Qaeda in the country, though these groups have claimed to have committed some of the acts. Many bloggers have had to leave Bangladesh because of threats.

Popular anger

Free thought and fearless expression within the law are basic constitutional rights in India. Thus, the killing of rationalists violated one of the country's intrinsic and core qualities. The cow is sacred and venerated by a large section of Hindus. In many parts of India, cow slaughter is legally banned. Illegal cow slaughter causes deep revulsion and leads to popular anger in these areas. It also leads to law and order problems.
There is need for all to respect the popular Hindu sentiment towards cattle.

However, there can never be a justification for vigilantism. It has no place in India and the cases in UP and Rajasthan are reason for introspection. Naturally, the full might of the law must visit the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. The opposition parties claim that such vigilantism is the result of the BJP seeking to consolidate its Hindu base. The BJP denies these charges. Politics apart, the social and economic reasons which are leading to these actions need urgent and objective academic examination.

The fact is that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all going through intense change. Pakistan and Bangladesh are Islamic countries and the Islamic world is in ferment. The purveyors of narrow theologies wish to steer the ummah on extreme and violent paths. In Pakistan, the state's security institutions wish to use groups that have come within the sway of such thinking to promote foreign policy interests of the country. The inevitable price of such policy is internal vigilantism on sectarian and ideological considerations. So long as Pakistan does not re-orient its foreign and security approach, its social peace will only deteriorate.

The Indian Muslim community has almost completely avoided the extremist contagion impacting Pakistan and Bangladesh. The changing ethos of sections of the youth in the Kashmir Valley, though, need to be arrested.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured the country that his government is committed to social harmony and inclusive economic development. While there is no reason to doubt his focus, there is a need for swift action against cow vigilantism, so that there is no scope for misperceptions and misapprehensions among any section, including the minorities.