OVER A COFFEE: To be 11 and in jail —Dr Haider Shah
One day we shall be less busy and then we might come to offer you some help. Till then, Rimsha, hold on to your pain, while you are 11 and in jail
She is 11 years old and a poor Christian girl living in a slum area near Islamabad. At this age all over the world, children live in a dream world of their own. Playing with old dolls at home, they chase butterflies in the garden or enjoy gymnastics. Poverty might have already robbed Rimsha of much of the charm of this age, but little could she ever imagine that a bag of domestic waste would one day land her in jail when she was only 11 years old.
It has been reported in the media that she has Down syndrome. In this disease, due to an extra chromosome, natural growth of the body and mind gets affected. Her accusers say she does not have it. I am on their side. She is perfectly fine. It is the society in which she is living that is suffering from Down syndrome. Mentally ill are those who charge an 11-year-old, illiterate girl of blasphemy and then enjoy the sport of watching humans killed just as the Romans used to do in the times of gladiators. The police officials that arrested the little slum dweller and the judges that sent her to jail need to be examined for symptoms of mental derangement.
Islamic accounts tell us that Hazrat Usman, the third caliph, sent an officially ascertained copy of the Quran to his governors along with orders to burn all other copies of the Quran. The burning of books containing Quranic verses on a massive scale is defended on the basis of the intention of the said act. This defence is made available to historical figures of the past but is denied to children of today. Criminal liability is only established when the doer has a guilty mind. This is the fundamental principle of all legal systems including Islamic jurisprudence. There is no need to stress upon Down syndrome or the age factor of Rimsha. Even if she were a fully grown up woman and in perfect health, she could not be accused of any offence if she did not mean wilful insult. Millions of newspapers carrying religious contents are used by vendors for wrapping pakoras or can be seen dumped in sewers or garbage places. Using paper waste as a fuel for fire is a common practice among poor people living in slums. If some of the waste contains pages that a part of the population considers holy, this is nobody’s fault. The accidental sacrilege of Holy Scriptures is a logical price of using printing presses for the cause of spreading religious messages. The crime has leapt out of the bigoted minds of those restless creatures that are living among us in the guise of humans. And like a horror science fiction movie, the demon is spreading its tentacles to grab us all, if we remain unconcerned for long.
Rimsha is 11 and reminds me of the ritual of human sacrifice during Aztec times. Anthropologists report that the heart of the sacrificial victims would be pulled out by the priest and offered to the gods in heaven, much to the delight of cheering crowds of worshippers. We, in the21st century, are not much different from our Aztec counterparts.
Rimsha is not living in a failed state where warlords reign supreme and there is no authority to ensure the safety of its citizens. She is a citizen of a country that prides itself on being a nuclear power and is the sixth largest in the world. This year Rs 2.6 trillion have been allocated for defence by the state but all she knows is that when she needed the might of the state it was not there. The Constitution of Pakistan has granted every citizen the fundamental right of ‘Inviolability of dignity of man’ via Article 14 and declared all citizens to be equal under Article 25. But the hapless girl knows that not only her dignity has been violated but her life is also in jeopardy. The federal government is to spend about Rs 71 billion on public order and safety affairs but all Rimsha knows is that when the goons were threatening her life, neither the police came to her rescue nor did the courts offer her any safety.
Rimsha is 11 and in jail. It is because last time we all preferred expediency over justice. When Aasia Bibi was denied access to justice, we all looked elsewhere. Salmaan Taseer was the only courageous soul but he was silenced by a maniac. Sherry Rehman quietly withdrew her bill aimed at rationalising the blasphemy law. The guns of the PPP that roar in the case of Swiss bank accounts fall silent against promoters of hate and assailants on human rights. Right under the nose of the so-called liberals, the demon of extremism is growing in size and stature. The day is not far off when toddlers and infants will also be charged with blasphemy and would be made sacrificial victims to please the imaginary gods.
Rimsha is 11 and in jail. The armed forces are busy dealing with strategic issues on the borders. The prime minister is busy mulling over legal challenges to survival. The Chief Justice is busy listening to defenders of the faith and pondering over how to cleanse the media of obscenity. I am busy writing my weekly columns and so are my worthy colleagues. We are all busy people. Hopefully, one day we shall be less busy and then we might come to offer you some help. Till then, Rimsha, hold on to your pain, while you are 11 and in jail.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org