Lahore Inferno and beyond!
The unfortunate incident of Joseph Colony, Badami Bagh, Lahore, where homes, shops and Churches of the Christian community were set on fire, brought collective shame and embarrassment for the entire Pakistani nation.
Each time an incident of violence against a minority community takes place, we think that it couldn’t have been worse. But soon after, another episode presents yet bigger challenge and we witness acts of greater insanity, inhumanity and brutality. Armed groups with sectarian, religious and ethnic orientations are continuously engaged in their effort of tearing the communities apart.
People were still struggling to overcome the shock and awe of Quetta and Karachi incidents when a Christian locality was targeted in Lahore under a dubious excuse of blasphemy, and the sentiments of the people were exploited. The causes, factors and agents responsible for the ongoing madness are complexly intertwined. Mobs can be activated on as required basis; manipulators hold the reins of power and tolerance has lost its rightful place in the national discourse.
Lahore event is a part of the strategy to keep Pakistani society off balance through exploitation of vulnerabilities in a quick succession. Unfortunately no one has ever been punished meaningfully for earlier similar occurrences. For example, nobody has yet been taken to justice for the 2009 burning of Christian homes in Shantinagar, Gojra; in that unfortunate incident, eight Christians were burnt alive.
Abhorring image of young men hurling a Christian cross onto a bonfire and others displaying triumphant mood was certainly a shameful act. Fortunately, there was no loss of life, though there was massive loss of property. The silver lining was that the protest against this ghastly occurrence was nationwide, cutting across all ethno-sectarian divides. Thousands of Christians and Muslims took to the streets across the country, demanding better protection to the minorities. Rebuilding of the property commenced immediately, and the Supreme Court assumed charge almost spontaneously.
Incident was indeed another attempt to further tarnish the image of Pakistan. When such incidents take place, foreign media finds it easy to reinforce the bias that minorities are not safe in Pakistan. Tenor of Lahore violence was unexpected, it has sent across a clear message that there could be more incidents of similar nature during the coming days.One of the objectives undercutting these incidents constructed around traditional fault lines is to disrupt the election schedule.
Reprimanding the Inspector General (IG) Punjab, the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) remarked as to why the police chief was not trying to get to the facts of the matter and whether he was capable of performing his duties. The bench further inquired why security measures had not been employed when there were reports of trouble in the area. He further asked as to why the neighbourhood had been evacuated. The bench also questioned whether the attack was a property-related matter.
Eye-witnesses of Lahore incidents say that police merely watched when the arson took place, and did nothing to stop the mob. Overall, it was indeed a crisis of state power that has lost the ability to subdue armed groups and establish order.
Once jigsaw pieces are put together, the Lahore incident emerges to be a well planned scheme woven around a dubious plot of blasphemy. Movie like fiction was enacted to grab the prime land.
All this came after a Muslim barber accused his Christian friend Sawan Masih of uttering derogatory words, reportedly while both were consuming liquor! After nearly two days of rumour-mongering, the accused person was taken into police custody for investigation; yet the attack took place.
There was nothing that spoke of spontaneity. The rioters, carrying cans of petrol, came in numbers and were fully prepared to do the damage. They were well organized, had done adequate planning, and were determined not only to cause the exodus but also ensure that the fleeing persons do not return back to their homes. Soon after the incident became a public knowledge, police had advised the Christians to vacate the colony; some had already abandoned their homes. Terrified Christian families fled. The police contingent, though present, did not make a worthwhile effort to preempt and prevent the loot and arson. Behaviour of police was indeed a mirror reflection of Gojra episode.
Joseph colony is located in an industrial area and perception has it that the vested interests wanted it vacated. There is a blasphemy law and those indulging in blasphemous activities are accordingly dealt with. Only State has power to sentence the blasphemer and no law allows anyone to unleash collective punishment on any locality or community just because a blasphemer belongs there. Certainly there was a conspiracy of the sorts.
It was, however, encouraging that the Punjab government took immediate damage control actions. The Punjab chief minister has ordered a judicial inquiry and the restoration of destroyed houses commenced within hours. Police officials who should have stopped the burning, but did not, were removed.
Religious parties also came forth to condemn the violence and termed it as unjustified and un-Islamic. The Ulema condemned the attempt to take the law into private hands, and did what they could to calm the situation. Their role however does not finish here; it must translate into a code of conduct calling for restraint on the onset of such incidents. The only way to prevent further attempts to take the law into mob’s own hands is to punish the perpetrators of this arson. This will only be achieved by ensuring that the law takes its due course.
Certainly paltry compensation for each family by the Punjab government will not heal the scars of the families who have lost their homes alongside all their possessions. It would, nevertheless, help in their early rehabilitation. Police claims to have arrested some of the protesters though it remains to be seen if they will be convicted. Courage must be found to stop and fight this madness.
In Pakistan religious intolerance, violence and anger are on a rampage. All minority religious groups are vulnerable. Religion is used as a tool for deflecting empathy from those outside particular sectarian and religious affiliations. As a society, we are fast approaching the point where none of us is safe. Addressing the current crisis involves uniting state organizations with societal traditions. There are many things we need to tackle if similar incidents are to be prevented in future. We need to deal with extremism on a wider level. The voice of love, reason and human solidarity that underwrites our literature, music and folk cultures must not be lost in the storm of irrationality.
Vulnerability to ethno-sectarian incidents would increase manifold during the coming days as the caretaker set-up takes over, with its primary focus on execution of electoral process. Moreover, maintenance of law and order would also assume an election related bias. There would indeed be added onus on the law enforcement agencies to be vigilant to ward off such unfortunate incidents while ensuring peace and order before, during and after the elections.
(Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal-Writer is Consultant, Policy & Strategic Response, IPRI)