NEW DELHI: In an unusual application of Pakistan’s heavily criticised blasphemy law -- Chichawatni city police have booked five employees of a transport company and owner of a bus terminal for desecrating the turban of a Sikh passenger.

According to Dawn News, the incident took place when the passenger complained about inconvenience whilst travelling, leading to a scuffle.

The complainant, Mahinder Paal Singh (29), a resident of Multan, told Dawn on telephone that he was traveling from Faisalabad to Multan by a bus (FDS 676) owned by Kohistan-Faisal Movers company that broke down near Dijkot. According to Singh, although the bus was repaired, speed was hampered and the bus took over five hours to reach Chichawatni terminal from Dijkot.

Singh said that it was on reaching the terminal that he and a few other passengers complained about the slow speed, and demanded that the vehicle be changed for the rest of the journey. It was at this point that the fight broke out, during which six company employees and the terminal owner allegedly manhandled the passengers, including Singh. According to Dawn, Singh alleges that during the fight a bus terminal hawker, Rashid Gujjar, threw his turban on the ground. The blasphemy law has been applied as Singh argued that the turban was considered sacred in the Sikh religious code and throwing it on the ground was tantamount to desecration.

The incident is a unique application of the blasphemy law, which, in Pakistan usually applies to Islam and has come under severe criticism as many claim that the law is used to harass and intimidate the country’s minorities.

Most recently, the blasphemy law was in the news, as the killer of governor Salman Taseer -- Taseer was a vocal critic of the controversial law -- was awarded the death sentence by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Mumtaz Qadri had shot Taseer in connection with latter’s views on the law, and had emerged a hero with his hanging being followed by mass protests on the streets of Pakistan.

Taseer was a vocal defender of Asia Bibi -- a Christian woman awarded the death penalty on charges of blasphemy. In June 2009, Asia Bibi (known also as Aasiya Noreen) was involved in an argument with a group of Muslim women with whom she had been harvesting berries. The women, it seems, were angry that Bibi was drinking from the same vessel of water as them. As the argument got heated, Bibi -- the women concerned allege -- insulted the Prophet Mohammad.

In 2010, a court in Pakistan convicted her of blasphemy and imposed the death penalty (and a fine of $1100). Bibi describes the day of her sentencing as follows:

“I cried alone, putting my head in my hands. I can no longer bear the sight of people full of hatred, applauding the killing of a poor farm worker. I no longer see them, but I still hear them, the crowd who gave the judge a standing ovation, saying: "Kill her, kill her! Allahu Akbar!" The court house is invaded by a euphoric horde who break down the doors, chanting: "Vengeance for the holy prophet. Allah is great!" I was then thrown like an old rubbish sack into the van... I had lost all humanity in their eyes.”

Bibi, although the first woman to be convicted and punished by death for blasphemy in Pakistan, is by no means alone. In fact, the blasphemy law is routinely used in Pakistan as a means to target the country’s minorities. A report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom says Pakistan’s use of the blasphemy law is “incomparable” to anywhere else. 14 people are currently on death row in Pakistan and 19 others serving life sentences for charges of blasphemy against Islam.

A Human Rights Watch report states that “abuses are rife under the country’s abusive blasphemy law, which is used against religious minorities, often to settle personal disputes.” The report notes that at least 16 people were on death row for blasphemy and another 20 were serving life-sentences in 2013. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) stated that 34 people were charged with blasphemy in 2013.

The blasphemy laws, which relate to Section XV Articles 295-298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, are indicative of the growing intolerance and religious radicalisation in Pakistan. Although the Pakistan Penal Code always had a provision to safeguard against blasphemy, it was only in the 1980s that Islam was singled out receiving specific articles. In 1982, under General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, the death penalty and life imprisonment were added as punishments relating to the law.

The laws themselves are quite expansive. They prohibit expression that is intended to wound “religious feelings,” and deliberate or malicious acts intended to “outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs;” the laws specifically, through the provisions added in the 1980s, prohibit defiling the Quran and insulting the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, family or companions. The “misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles” is also prohibited. Following the 1982 amendment that introduced the death penalty and life imprisonment, an amendment in 1992 made the death penalty mandatory for individuals convicted of making derogatory remarks about the prophet. Since then, successive governments - both Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf expressed their commitment to amend the law - have failed to introduce measures to change the law, succumbing to pressures by extremists and clerics.

Critics of the blasphemy law have often been targeted, a famous example being Taseer himself who was assassinated by his guard after defending Bibi. In 2011, Pakistan’s Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down after he campaigned for changes to the law - specifically the provision that judges be required to investigate cases of blasphemy before registering cases and a measure for punishment for false accusations. In July 2013, two brothers who were charged with defaming the prophet were shot dead as they stepped out of a courtroom.

The blasphemy laws exist in the social-cultural-political context of targeted attacks on religious minorities. They are representative of a climate that fosters intolerance and impunity, perpetuating grave human rights violations. Ironically, the laws are indicative of the erosion of the rule of law in Pakistan, with government institutions are at the mercy of islamist extremists - as evinced by the murder of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, or the failure of Benazir Bhutto or General Musharraf to amend the law despite publicly declaring their intention to do so.

The reason why this recent case of the Sikh youth is a novel application of the law is because it is being applied to the Sikh religion, whereas in most prominent cases in Pakistan, it has applied almost squarely to Islam. Whether the law will hold up in a court of law, however, remains to be seen…

(Main photo: Representational image of the Sikh turban)