By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, December 13: The lynching of Sri Lankan factory manager Priyantha Kumara (49) in Sialkot, Pakistan on December 3, is but the latest in a long series of mob or vigilante killings in the world. Lynching goes back to the American War of Independence in the 18 th. Century. It is, therefore, a contribution of the United States, the world’s oldest democracy, ironically. And it survived in the US till as recently as the 1950s and 1960s.
Priyantha’s case had all the hallmarks of typical lynching. In lynching, there is always a social, cultural, religious and ethnic distinction between the perpetrators of the violence and the victim. It has a hidden cause which is distinct from the overt cause. The actual and underlying cause is portrayed differently in the public sphere so as to gain instant popular support for the lynching. The killing is done with mass participation, which enables the real culprits to escape detection and punishment.
However, in Priyantha’s case, since the victim was a foreigner from friendly Sri Lanka, and the incident occurred days before the Democracy Summit in the US, the Pakistani authorities launched a quick investigation and arrested key suspects. Normally, Pakistani lynch mobs would go scot free.
According to sources, Priyantha was a quality control manager in a factory manufacturing export items. By virtue of his mandate, he was strict, which the workers apparently resented. In the process of white washing the factory, he had removed a poster or sticker which was an announcement of a religious event. Being a foreigner, he had not understood what was written, as it was in Urdu. The workers objected to the removal and Priyantha apologized. But a section of workers, who could have had a prior grievance against him, interpreted his act a blasphemous one, for which the punishment is death under a Pakistani law made by President Zia ul Haq in the 1980s. The thrashing of Priyantha in no time snowballed and attracted other workers and outsiders. In mindless frenzy, the mob beat him to death and burnt his body. Hundreds of spectators, including policemen, watched the gruesome spectacle coolly recording it on video.
Priyantha was an easy target for a blasphemy charge as he was a foreigner, a non-Muslim, and therefore, the quintessential “other”, who had no natural rights. In White majority US and in Hindu-majority India, the typical victim of lynching is a local “other”, Black, Muslim or Dalit. As the “other”, Priyantha was outside the ambit of the law. A mob could be dispose him of without any pangs of conscience. The perpetrators of the murder also knew that when the accusation was blasphemy, the police, the judiciary, and the Pakistani political system would not intervene. These institutions would not oppose a religiously sanctioned act, no matter how dubious the charge of blasphemy might be. In fact, they would intervene only at their peril. In Pakistan, those who take the law into their own to punish a person for blasphemy, are hailed as heroes. The killer of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was hailed as a hero and 500 clerics backed the killing.
A person does not have to commit blasphemy to be accused of blasphemy. Human rights bodies say that personal scores are settled by slapping the charge of blasphemy especially in cases where the person concerned is a non-Muslim. Priyantha’s wife, Nilushi Dasanayake, was probably right when she said that there could have been a non-religious reason for the murder of her husband. With eleven years of service in Pakistan, Priyantha would not have been so mad as to wantonly commit a blasphemous act, she said.
Lynching in Pakistan is rooted in its Blasphemy laws made by President Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s under the 1973 constitution, which had made Islam the State religion. On 5 July 1977, Zia had said that Pakistan, established in the name of Islam, would survive only if it stuck to a particular interpretation of Islam. As per Section 295 B of the Blasphemy law, whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life. Section 295 C says that whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine. In 1990, the Federal Sharia Court held that the “death penalty is the only punishment for contempt of the Holy Prophet”.
In his paper: Blasphemy laws and Pakistan’s human rights obligations Bilak Hayee says that the death sentence became a mandatory penalty for offences under 295 C. The accused in blasphemy cases are denied equality before law, presumption of innocence, the right to legal counsel, and fair trial. Abuses occur at every stage of the proceedings. Sections 295 B and 295 C are cognizable offences, and so, a police officer can arrest an accused without a warrant. No proof of intent is required, which makes the victim susceptible to abuse.
Religious clerics and their supporters, especially in the Punjab province, file complaints of blasphemy based on false or flimsy allegations. Despite weak evidence, police officers, prosecutors and trial courts tend to be reluctant to throw out such cases because of pressure from religious groups (such as Tehrik-e-Tahafuz-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwat) Bilal Hayee says.
Common Features in Lynching
A look at the history of lynching will show that it has common characteristics. In lynching, a mob, under the pretext of administering justice, executes a presumed offender, often after inflicting torture and corporal mutilation. The term “lynch” is traced to Charles Lynch (1736–96), an American planter in Virginia, who meted out summary justice of this kind to loyalists of the British crown during the American War of Independence (1775-1783).
Later, lynching became an instrument and a symbol of power of one socio-economic and racial group over another. Typically, the poor, especially the Blacks, were considered prone to crime, including sexual crime, and deserving torture and a public execution outside the law. They were considered unworthy of legal protections. According to Paula Giddings, Professor of Afro-American Studies at Smith College, the number of Blacks lynched overtook the figure for the Whites in 1886. After 1886, Blacks constituted the majority. Between 1882 and 1951, 4,730 persons were lynched in the US, of whom 1,293 were White, and 3,437 were Black.
Lynching of Blacks continued till the 1950s and 1960s. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), between 1882 and 1968, 4,743 were lynched in the US and the Blacks accounted for 72% percent of these. Charges of rape were routinely fabricated to enforce segregation and propagate stereotypes. Hundreds of Black people were lynched for murder, arson, robbery, vagrancy and even speaking to Whites with less respect than expected.
Lynching was typically done by mobs. The victims were either hanged publicly or tortured to death and sometimes decapitated or burnt. It was a public spectacle, a celebration of White supremacy. Photos of lynching were sold as souvenir postcards.
Though mob lynching is not seen now, killing of people outside the framework of the law is still taking place in the US, NAACP points out. In 1998, James Byrd was chained to a car by three White supremacists and dragged to his death in the streets of Jasper, Texas. In 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was fatally shot while jogging near Brunswick, Georgia. The three White men charged with killing Arbery claimed he was trespassing. The public killing of Black man George Floyd by a White cop for suspected shoplifting in Minneapolis was the most recent case of lynching in the US.