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Parallels between Aasia Bibi and Sabarimala

In both India and Pakistan, the State has failed to protect Constitutional democracy. It has bowed to the religious patriarchy of the majority, writes Dipak Kumar

The Partition of India in 1947 gave birth to a Muslim state, Pakistan. The polarization was very clear: Pakistan for the Muslims and India for the Hindus. India promised to protect the interest of the minority Muslim community and went on to call itself a “secular” state, although it had 80 per cent “Hindu” population. Pakistan, too, despite naming itself an Islamic republic, declared that it would safeguard the interest of the minority Hindus who stayed back during the Partition.

However, in both countries, the politics around religious insecurity, viz Muslims are in danger in Pakistan and Hindus are under threat in India, took root. In both the countries, electoral politics has always played a pivotal role in strengthening the strong religious sentiments against minorities. Conservative political parties and religious groups in both the countries are undermining the concept of Constitutional democracy and demoralizing higher institutions. Two recent examples, one in India and the other in Pakistan, corroborate this reality.

In India, on 28 September 2018, the Supreme Court gave permission to women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. Traditionally, women of menstruating age, between 10 to 50 years, are not allowed to enter the temple. The Hindu clergy did not take kindly to the Supreme Court verdict, which resulted in backlash from the adherents of the tradition, openly supported by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose only agenda is to turn India into a Hindu nation, and its affiliate, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They openly defied the Supreme Court order by preventing women from entering the temple.

A protest in Kerala against the Supreme Court judgment on Sabarimala

Various review petitions were filed in the Supreme Court after the verdict but the apex court declined to review the judgment immediately. However, on 13 November 2018, when the situation in Kerala appeared to be getting out of hand, the Supreme Court declared that it would admit 49 petitions in an open court on 22 January 2019. However, the apex court did not grant a stay on the entry of women in the temple and the implementation of the judgment.

In Pakistan, on 30 October 2018, the Supreme Court acquitted Aasia Bibi (a Christian woman and a mother of five children) of blasphemy. In 2010, she had been sentenced to death for disrespecting Prophet Mohammad under the blasphemy law and had spent eight years in solitary confinement since. Her acquittal led to unrest and violence, with the protestors even threatening the Supreme Court judges with grave consequences if they did not reverse the verdict.

A protest in Pakistan against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi

There are four significant similarities between these two incidents. First, in both the countries, the protestors were from the religious majority. The majority has been asserting its authority through dogma and religious tenets – cow vigilantes in India and the blasphemy law in Pakistan. These are most effective tools to control freedom, liberty and privacy of individuals, especially those belonging to the minority population.

Second, their religions sanction deprivation of women. In India, the caste system hinges on depriving women of their rights and equating them to Shudras. Aasia Bibi is not only a woman, but a Christian woman, which further relegates her status in society.

Third, the protestors of both the countries want to rewrite their Constitutions and take over their higher institutions. Fourth, intellectuals and liberals shy away from denouncing these protestors. In Pakistan, most of the political parties and other organizations have criticized the judgment. In India, senior journalist Shekhar Gupta and Faizan Mustafa, an academician, have gone on record to say that it is not the task of the judiciary to interfere in the religious affairs of the people.

Immediately after the Supreme Court verdict acquitted Aasia Bibi, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan welcomed it only to give in to the protests later and do an about turn. He called for a review petition against the verdict.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remained silent on the Sabarimala issue while the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley suggestion to the judiciary was that it should work within its limits. However, Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stood with the Supreme Court verdict and took appropriate measures to implement it. He provided enough security to women devotees when they tried to enter the Sabarimala Temple. Additionally, the chief minister chose not to file a review petition challenging the verdict.

In both cases, the protests have imperilled constitutional democracy. Second, the value of institutions has gone down in the public domain. Third, these incidents have given rise to a feeling of insecurity among minorities and women in both countries. While Pakistan is already a Muslim State, India is now trying to become a Hindu State.

Copy-editing: Navraj Bhatia/Anil

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About The Author

Deepak Kumar

Deepak Kumar is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has an LLM in Constitutional Law from Ram Manohar Lohia National Law University, Lucknow

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