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How Blasphemy Laws Were Weaponised By Majority As A Tool Against Minority

Successively, the shifts in contexts reveal how the sentiment of injury has rescinded from a prerogative that minorities could claim as victims of majoritarianism. Today, those belonging to the majority religion claim injury and victimization from not just perceived offenders of Islam but even by those who may criticise the flaws in the colonial blasphemy laws. Some claim injury by the very existence of minorities (especially those ‘impersonating’ Muslims), writes Afiya Zia

It is inaccurate to suggest that there are compelling similarities between three historic and high-profile blasphemy-related cases: Ilmuddin’s murder of Mahashay Rajpal in pre-partition Lahore in 1929, the murder of Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer by his guard, Mumtaz Qadri in Lahore in 2011, and recent murder of an under-trial alleged blasphemer, Tahir Naseem, in the Peshawar courtroom (2020).

Broadly speaking, these cases may be linked in terms of political manipulations of religious sentiment and a cultivated law (first by the colonial regime and then by the Pakistani state) but it would be paradoxical to argue that the rationale behind the claimed moral injury in each case is the same. Suffice it to say, the justifications for each are not comparable because the contexts, motives and performances of claimed religious injuries have shifted considerably over the last century.

This raises the question of whether there are grounds for acceding what postsecularists have insisted is the grievance suffered by Muslims for perceived blasphemy, particularly in Muslim-majority contexts.

Legal chronology;

  1. In 1924, the Lahore publisher Mahashay Rajpal printed a satire on the Prophet’s (PBUH) domestic life. Satirical literature was not uncommon in the political climate, especially which mocked religions/characters.
  2. In July 1924, the government brought charges against Rajpal under Section 153 A of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized ‘attempts to promote feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes’.
  3. After 3 years of legal battle, the Lahore High Court acquitted Rajpal in May 1927, finding that, while the pamphlet was highly offensive, there was no proof that its purpose was to promote feelings of enmity. (Rajpal v. Emperor, All India Recorder 1927 Lah. 590). In the months following the acquittal, the case provoked outrage and debate.
  4. In September 1927, the Indian Legislative Assembly approved an amendment to the Penal Code, Section 295A, which directly criminalized insults to religion, eliminating the requirement to prove that such insults promoted hatred between communities. In response, several newspapers in Lahore called the new law ‘a dangerous concession to Muslim fanaticism’. It was in this climate that there emerged some of the earliest calls for India to embrace an explicitly secular politics.
  5. On 6th April 1929, a young man named Ilmuddin murdered Rajpal sparking a fresh round of outrage and controversy.
  6. Ilmuddin was sentenced to death on May 22, 1929. Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Farrukh Hussain filed an appeal to the Lahore High Court against the death sentence (Broadway and Johnston, JJ. Ilam Din—Accused Appellant versus Emperor—Opposite Party. Criminal Appeal No. 562 of 1929, decided on 17th July 1929 from order of Sess. Judge, Lahore, D/- 22nd May 1929). The judgement found that “murderer is 19 or 20 years of age and murder prompted by veneration for founder of religion is not extenuating circumstance. The mere fact that the murderer is only 19 or 20 years of age and that the act was prompted by feelings of veneration for the founder of his religion and anger at one who had scurrilously attacked him, is a wholly insufficient reason for not imposing the appropriate sentence provided by law: A.I.R. 1928 Lah 531, Ref. [P158 C1, 2].”
  7. After his execution in October 1929, Ilmuddin became a folk hero for some Muslims, hailed and venerated as Ghazi and he continues to be a subject of popular hagiographies.


The Ilmuddin case erupted in a religiously tense India that several historians call the ‘communal 1920s’. Ayesha Jalal accurately points out that, ‘communal’ was a label disproportionately applied to Muslims but in any case, this was a period of intense tensions between Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent.

Gov Salmaan Taseer and Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti were murdered in a certain tense political milieu of 2011, where the tensions were not communal but they both represented the minority liberal perspective embraced by Pakistan’s People Party in a city (Lahore) that is dominated by Khatm e Nabuwat politics. Punjab is the epicenter of blasphemy cases of Pakistan.

Similarly, with Tahir Naseem’s multiple ‘lapsed’ identities – allegedly as an Ahmedi who was then rehabilitated and was also reportedly suffering mental health issues – he qualifies as a more fringe minority than the victims above.

Successively, the shifts in contexts reveal how the sentiment of injury has rescinded from a prerogative that minorities could claim as victims of majoritarianism. Today, those belonging to the majority religion claim injury and victimization from not just perceived offenders of Islam but even by those who may criticise the flaws in the colonial blasphemy laws. Some claim injury by the very existence of minorities (especially those ‘impersonating’ Muslims).

Secondly, the British Empire took offense to both, Rajpal’s crime of blasphemy and Ilmuddin’s crime of murder and punished both but in Pakistan, the climate has become such that it is not the state but offended individuals who are claiming offense and committing murders as proxies of the state and mostly with impunity.

Motives, vulnerabilities and injuries

In the Ilmuddin case, the majoritarian Hindu environment was a stage that enabled Jinnah to claim a principled appellate defense for the weaker or more vulnerable party whereas, in the Taseer and Naseem cases, there was no proven crime committed by the alleged offenders. The argument that secular law cannot solve the problem of Muslim moral injury is belied by the fact that increasingly there is no offense that is being avenged – just an increasing amount of gratuitous violence being committed with religious impunity.

Tahir Naseem is reported to have had mental health issues which are not unusual in cases of blasphemy (Sindh has inserted a provision to assess competency in such cases). Flights of fancy where one claims or imitates divine personalities are not unusual for those suffering mental health issues. In 2014, the British-Pakistani blasphemy accused, Muhammad Asghar, claimed he was a prophet in letters to the police and was murdered by the young guard on death row in Adiala jail.

This signifies a shift from the claim of moral offense to a form of bounty hunting to gain heavenly reward. It permits state officials to separate or place their religious sentiment and cause above the constitution or state duty. The fact that the khateebs of Badshahi Mosque and Data Darbar Mosque, and the Imam of the Governor’s House mosque refused to lead the prayer for Taseer’s funeral was reportedly because the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat Pakistan had allegedly asked the clerics to refuse to conduct the rites. Similarly, several Bar Associations are pledging and aggressively coercing lawyers to refuse to defend any case of alleged blasphemy. Justice is no longer a legal concern in cases of alleged blasphemy – it’s a moral lever.

Literal, not literary

Julia Stephens in her paper, The Politics of Muslim Rage: Secular Law and Religious Sentiment in Late Colonial India (2014) observes that in the tense environment of India in the 1920s, literary attacks on religious sentiments and even spoofs of the personal lives of religious figures took an unprecedented level of virulence and were quite explosive. Today, not only can the title of Rajpal’s offensive text not be cited, the very idea of “literary attacks” is unthinkable without deadly consequences.

An early sign of the turn of Islam in Pakistan from spirit to the literal letter, was when a number of blasphemy cases started to be filed for the accidental disposal or inadvertent tearing of holy texts and pages. The Human Rights Commission came up with a solution of placing special ‘purgatory boxes’ or bins in locations where damaged or torn texts could be respectfully discarded, instead of becoming excuses for offended Muslims to kill for reparative justice over injury of a text. Over the years, the discourse has slipped even further – from the textual to the lexical.

Taseer’s guilt was said to be his verbal criticism of the blasphemy laws. Spelling errors in an exam by a student and casual comments on TV and social media were already signalling the slippery slope of the usual excuses that blasphemy accusations were only about misusing the law and deployed only for the profane reason of greed for property.

Now a week ago, a clip from a video for a forthcoming song as shot in Wazir Khan mosque in Lahore went viral and caused outrage and demands for pressing blasphemy charges. The clip shows the actor-couple contracting marriage at the mosque after which, without music or dancing, the girl takes a twirl. In response to the outrage, three groundkeepers of the mosque have been removed from their posts and the video actors have had to issue online apologies. Moral offense now extends to monuments and public spaces are becoming prohibitive sites too.

The performance of injury

The legal concern for intent or motive in blasphemy cases became practically redundant by 2014, when a Geo TV host, Shaista Lodhi re-enacted the marriage of the controversial model-actress, Veena Malik in her morning show. The ritualistic show was to serve as a performance of Malik’s redemption and conversion from a celebrity into a pious Muslim married woman. Her simulated marriage ceremony was accompanied by a Qawali playing in the background which pays tribute to the wedding of the Holy Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, with Hazrat Ali. Critics were offended because they felt this likened the Holy Prophet’s family to a show-business couple.

Within hours of the broadcast, social media pages exploded with harsh criticism and even death threats against the channel, the host and the actress. In total, 75 citizen complaint cases were registered against them across the country. A court hearing in Gilgit took such umbrage that in clear violation of the constitution, it issued a 40-page verdict convicting the alleged blasphemers and sentenced all of them to 26-year jail terms and a fine of 1.3 million rupees. The accused all offered apologies and the one by host, Shaista Lodhi, was relayed some 30 times on Geo TV.  

The massive funerals for both Rajpal and Ilmuddin provided the communities with mass catharsis in 1929. Hindu and Muslim leaders found common ground in their mutual demands which led to the government allowing both communities to publicly mourn the respective events. On the day after Mumtaz Qadri’s funeral in 2016, a reported Rs. 80 million was donated for the construction of his shrine and funds have flowed steadily after. The shrine was completed in 2017 and has plans of adding a school with it. It attracts masses of worshippers including, reportedly, the Punjab PTI Minister, Fayaz Chauhan.

Reasoning with injury

Today, India’s brand of secularism is captured by the rhetoric of the Hindu right, which argues that a truly secular policy should privilege the religious sensibilities of the Hindu majority, rather than providing ‘pseudo-secular’ protection for the Muslim minority (Stephens, cited above). In Pakistan, the Islamist right argues for privileging a vague, arbitrary sense of morality and injury and defies any legal reform to the blasphemy law to bring it into the realm of reason, due process, or even evidentiary requirements, let alone “secular reasoning.”

Those who prescribed that changing cultural sensibilities are more likely to bear fruit than existing regimes of secular law, should be called on to apply this detached theory to the cases of Pakistan. Stephens (cited above) finds it “surprising” that the “binary constructions of the relationship between liberal politics and Islamic sentiment echo much more broadly through contemporary debates about secularism, finding purchase even in arguments seeking to promote Muslim concerns.” Not only have the use and abuse of the law had a chilling effect on critical thinking or legal defense, it has outright enabled and justified censorship that is encouraging the banning of books, digital spaces and even, online educational webinars for fear of religious and nationalistic injury.


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