Issue Travel Advisory on Punjab
The torture and killing of Diyawadanage Don Nandasiri Priyantha Kumara (48), a manager at a sportswear export company in Sialkot, Punjab, Pakistan by religious extremists in broad daylight on Friday, follows the armed attack on a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team at Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan 12 years ago in 2009, also by religious extremists once more in broad daylight, where however no cricketer was killed, though a few were injured.
These two incidents taking place in broad daylight in the Punjab Province in Pakistan by religious extremists within the space of 12 years after the first highlight the fact that at least the Punjab Province may be a dangerous place for Sri Lankans, though, the Pakistani authorities made several arrests over both of these attacks.
It’s apt that the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) issues a travel advisory, warning Sri Lankans about the danger of visiting Punjab in the light of these two incidents. The Province of Punjab, Pakistan, should not be confused the State of Punjab, India, which share a common border.
The Punjab Province in Pakistan where Lahore is its Capital is 79,284 square miles (255,344 square kilometres), more than three times the size of Sri Lanka which is a mere 25,330 square miles (65,510 square km).
There are a number of Sri Lankans working and studying in Punjab. In fact two of the aforesaid victim Priyantha Kumara’s brothers work in Faisalabad, another city in the Punjab.
GoSL should take immediate steps to evacuate Sri Lankans and their families living in Pakistan who want to return to their motherland, even those living outside of the Punjab, gratis, having the cost of their air tickets borne by the GoSL, in the light of Friday’s incident.
The national carrier SriLankan and at least one foreign carrier operates weekly flights from Colombo to various parts of Pakistan like Sialkot, Lahore, the commercial capital Karachi in the Sind Province, Pakistan’s Capital City Islamabad and Peshawar (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province). These flights should be used to transport back Sri Lankans and their families who want to return home.
Such a travel advisory should be lifted only after the Pakistani Government not only assures the safety and security of all Sri Lankans living in Pakistan, but also after it passes certain laws which ensure such safety.
According to the BBC, offences relating to religion were first codified by India’s British rulers in 1860 and were expanded in 1927. Pakistan inherited these laws when it came into existence after the partition of India in 1947.
Between 1980 and 1986 a number of clauses were added to the laws by the Military Government of General Zia-ul-Haq. He wanted to ‘Islamicise’ them and also legally to separate the Ahmadi community, declared non-Muslim in 1973, from the main body of Pakistan’s overwhelmingly Muslim population.
The law enacted by the British made it a crime to disturb a religious assembly, trespass on burial grounds, insult religious beliefs or intentionally destroy or defile a place or an object of worship. The maximum punishment under these laws ranged from one-year to 10 years in jail, with or without a fine.
During the 1980s, the blasphemy laws were created and expanded in several installments. In 1980, making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages was made an offence, carrying a maximum punishment of three years in jail.
In 1982, another clause prescribed life imprisonment for ‘wilful’ desecration of the Koran. In 1986, a separate clause was inserted to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammed and the penalty recommended was ‘death, or imprisonment for life,’ in that order.
Often the laws are used to settle personal scores and have little or nothing to do with religion. Correspondents say the mere accusation of blasphemy is enough to make someone a target for hardliners, as is defending those accused of blasphemy or calling for the laws to be reformed.
Many Pakistanis believe the law, as codified by General
Zia-ul-Haq is straight out of the Koran and therefore, is not manmade.
Amending the blasphemy laws has been on the agenda of many popular secular parties. None has made much progress - principally because of the sensitivities over the issue, but also because no major party wants to antagonise the religious parties.
In 2010, a member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Sherry Rehman, introduced a Private Members Bill to amend the blasphemy law. Her Bill sought to change procedures of religious offences so, that they would be reported to a higher Police official and the cases heard directly by the higher courts.
The Bill was passed on to a Parliamentary Committee for vetting. It was withdrawn in February 2011 under pressure from religious forces as well as some Opposition political groups.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan vowed to defend the country’s strict blasphemy laws in the run-up to his General Election win last year.
The status quo is still in place. Qibla Ayaz, who heads Pakistan’s top advisory body on religious affairs, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), told BBC in February 2019 that no Government was ready to make changes to the blasphemy law due to fears of a backlash.
Nonetheless, until such a time Pakistan amends its blasphemy laws; let such a proposed travel advisory stay, while at the same time advising all Sri Lankans about the seriousness of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.