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Captain Lakshmi Sahgal: A beacon of inspiration

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Charvi Trivedi

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Captain Lakshmi Sahgal: A beacon of inspiration


Global Views 360

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August 15, 2020


Captain Lakshmi Sahgal in INA Uniform

Captain Lakshmi Sahgal in INA Uniform | Source: Indiatimes

Indian freedom movement has given countless heroes who gave the prime of their lives to see India chart her own destiny by throwing out the Britishers. While there were leaders and fighters like Mahatma Gandhi or Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, whom everyone knows, there were many other bravehearts who gave up their lives and used every ounce of their strength to free India from the clutches of British Rule. Doctor Lakshmi Sahgal was one of them.

Early Life

Lakshmi Swaminathan was born in Madras (now Chennai), which was under the Madras Presidency, British India, on October 24, 1914. Born to influential parents, Lakshmi was enthused with her mother’s contribution in the field of social work and inherited her father’s intelligence, who was a lawyer, and went on to become a doctor.

She received her MBBS degree from Madras Medical college in the year 1938 and a diploma in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the following year and was a working doctor in the Kasturba Gandhi Hospital, Chennai. Moreover, she established a clinic in Singapore, a year after getting her diploma, for the under-privileged and Indian migrant labourers.

In Singapore she joined hands with the Indian Independence League, a political body headquartered in Singapore, which prepared Indians living outside of India, to seek independence from the harsh British rule.

Indian National Army days

When the Japanese forces lost the 1942 Battle of Singapore to the British Army, DR. Sahgal played a prominent role in tending to the injured war prisoners. Several of these prisoners had not lost hope yet and wanted to begin an Indian Liberation Army. Their wish was granted when Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose visited Singapore in July, 1943. After listening to Bose’s speeches on wanting to establish an army composed of women to fight against the British forces, Lakshmi quickly set up a meeting with Bose and expressed her desire to be a part of the women regiment. She soon launched the Rani of Jhansi regiment, which was a wonderful opportunity for numerous women to do something for their nation.

Lakshmi Swaminathan turned into Captain Lakshmi, which marked the beginning of her inspiring journey in the freedom struggle. Nearly 50,000 women trained and fought under her command. She also carried the title of Colonel in the women’s army unit, the first one ever to be carried by a female in the entire continent of Asia during that time. Her regiment battled against the British forces along with the Axis Powers.

Unfortunately, she was arrested in 1945 in Burma (now Myanmar) and remained there for a year until she was sent back to India.

Later years

Lakshmi married Colonel Prem Kumar Sahgal in March, 1947 in Lahore, British India. Lakshmi Sahgal moved to Kanpur with her husband and carried on with her medical practice, attending to the needs of evacuees after the Partition of India.

After Independence, Lakshmi entered into the world of policy making and represented her party, The Communist Party of India (Marxist), in Rajya Sabha. During the Bangladesh crisis, she was the one who called for medical aid for thousands of refugees from Bangladesh who came into Calcutta. Moreover, she led a medical team to tend to the victims of the catastrophic Bhopal Gas Tragedy and worked towards refurbishing peace during the anti-Sikh riots, both which took place in the year 1984.

In 2002, she was the only opponent of A.P.J Abdul Kalam when she got elected as a candidate in the Presidential elections, of four leftist parties namely the Revolutionary Socialist Party, All India Forward Bloc, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

DR. Lakshmi Sahgal was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award, in 1998 for her great achievements, by R.K. Narayan. An airport in Dehat district of Kanpur, Captain Lakshmi Sahgal International Airport, is named in her honour.

She passed away on July, 23, 2012 after suffering from a cardiac arrest, at a good age of 97. Her noble deeds did not stop even after her death as she donated her body to Kanpur Medical College for medical research.

She was a true leader who broke the glass ceiling and barged into the male dominated world of revolutionary army which played a great role in throwing out the Britishers from India. After India’s independence she excelled in another male dominated domain, politics. Hers is an inspiring story that women can be equally brave and fierce as men and can achieve anything by showing perseverance.

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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