A Tale of Two Judgments: Asia Bibi and Sabariamala

Ram Puniyani

On 31st October Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted Asia Bibi of the charges of blasphemy. She was on the death row from last eight years on this charge. The bench found that the charges cannot be sustained in law. The penalty for blasphemy in Pakistan is death. Bibi; A Christian is a farm laborer and her family had been under great stress, running from pillar to post to save her life. The judgment has come as a good respite. One recalls that in the same case. Salman Taseer, the then Governor of Punjab, had met Bibi, had opposed the blasphemy laws, had pleaded for clemency for her and talked of protection of minorities in Pakistan. Taseer, for voicing these sentiments, was done to death. His murderer, Malki Mumtaz Hussain Kadri, was made a hero and the maulanas refused to perform the last prayers for Taseer.

Now in the aftermath of the judgment, Pakistan is on the boil. Fundamentalist elements have indulged in violence at places. Disturbed by the insane reaction, Prime Minster of Pakistan, Imran Khan appealed to the nation to honor the verdict of Court. At the same time he signed an agreement with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, the party behind the protests and violence, in which Khan conceded their demands of not letting Asia Bibi leave Pakistan. Imran Khan appealed that judges who acquitted Bibi should not be targeted. Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook has already left Pakistan out of fear of violence against him. 

On 28th September 2018 Supreme Court of India gave the verdict that not permitting women of all age groups into Sabrimala Temple is discriminatory against women and that they should be permitted to enter the shrine. While most parties and particularly RSS initially welcomed the judgment, immediately they made an about turn. With Hindu right wing organizations, VHP in the lead, came forward to ‘Save Sabrimala’ and stopped the women of menstruating age group from entering the shrine. The matters got heated up. Barring the ruling CPM led left front other parties, including Congress, buckled under the emotive storm and supported the protests against temple entry by women of particular age group. Interestingly many of these formations had supported the entry of women in the holy temple of Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra. The RSS affiliates were particularly jubilant when women were permitted to enter the sanctum sanctorum of Haji Ali Dargah for Muslim women.

As such many scholarly articles have come on the Sabrimala shrine. These tell us that women of all age groups were permitted in the shrine till 1991. When after another court verdict’s warped implementation created the situation of not letting the menstrual age group women to enter the temple. This judgment was based on the assumption that women of menstruating age group will not be able to follow the austerity of 41 days which is required for temple visit. Incidentally that Court order also notes that earlier women of all age group were permitted in the temple. There are studies showing that the shrine has tribal and Buddhist antecedents, the tribes for who menstruation was not a taboo, and they used to throng the shrine till 1960s. There is also evidence of women of all age groups entering temple till 1980s. The rigidification of these norms begins after 1991 judgment. Now the communal forces are seeing this as an opportunity to make electoral base in the state as they did in Karnataka in the name of Baba Budan Giri Dargah or in MP in the name of Kamal Maula Masjid. Vacillation of is very disturbing.

So two neighboring countries are showing similar response to the judgments of the apex court. Courts in both cases have gone by the respective books and tried to give equality to all religions (in case of Pakistan) and genders (in India). In India most political parties backed out after seeing the response to fanatic religious groups. In Pakistan, Imran Khan despite showing the brave face in the beginning to support the acquittal of Bibi, has come down to compromise with the fundamentalist group, by not letting Bibi leave the country. At one point of time, when asked about what is the great challenge he faces as the Prime Minster of the country, Jawaharlal Nehru told Andre Maraloux that creating secular state in a religious country is the primary one (1958).

The journey which Nehru envisaged was mired by many hiccups, ups and downs. Since 1980s, after Shah Bano case, the pretext of Muslim appeasement been used to jack up the Ram Temple movement in a frightening manner. The religiosity is being used by communal organizations to polarize the society, while weak secular organizations are capitulating for electoral calculations.

The journey in Pakistan has been much worse. Jinnah’s 11th August 1947 Speech in Pakistan upheld secular society, but it was not to last for long. The communal feudal elements came to command soon enough to trample on the secular values. With Islamization of Pakistan during Zai Ul Haq regime, the country has seen a further downward turn towards fanaticism. So today despite Imran Khan not supporting the fanatics ideologically is forced to compromise with them to prevent the sheer unleashing of violence Both neighbors have many things common now. Till few decades earlier India was much ahead on the path for liberal democratic ethos with secular values, since the decades of 1990s India is trying to emulate Pakistan, in the orthodoxy and intensity of politics in the name of religion.

In Pakistan the religious minorities Hindus and Muslims were relegated to margins much early, now even Shias, Ahmadis are on the target. So the laws are in place as in the case of Asia Bibi and Sabarimala shrine, but the section of society is trying to resist the march towards secularism. Had Nehru been alive, he would have revised his formulation to say the laws are secular but section of society is resisting them to remain in the cocoon of retrograde values! 

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / OPED