Lahore inferno and beyond
The unfortunate incident of Joseph Colony in 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 the minority community takes place, we think that nothing could have been worse. But soon after, another episode presents a yet bigger challenge and we witness acts of greater insanity, inhumanity and brutality. It seems that the armed groups with sectarian, religious and ethnic orientations in Pakistan are continuously engaged in their effort of tearing apart the entire fabric of Pakistani society.
The factors and agents responsible for the ongoing madness are complexly intertwined: mobs can be activated on as required, manipulators hold the reins of power and tolerance has lost its rightful place in national discourse.
The Badami Bagh incident is a part of the strategy to keep the 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 Shanti Nagar, Gojra; in that unfortunate incident, eight Christians were burnt alive.
Anyway, the 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 for the minorities. The rebuilding of property commenced immediately and the Supreme Court assumed charge almost spontaneously.
The Badami Bagh incident was, indeed, another attempt to tarnish the image of Pakistan. When such incidents take place, the international media finds it easy to reinforce the bias that minorities are unsafe in Pakistan.
The tenor of the violence in Lahore was unexpected; it indicates that there could be more incidents of similar nature in the coming days. It seems that one of the objectives, undercutting these incidents constructed around traditional fault lines, is to disrupt the election schedule.
Against this backdrop, while reprimanding the Inspector General (IG) Punjab, the Supreme Court inquired: why security measures were not taken when there were prior reports of trouble in the area and whether the attack was a property-related matter?
According to eyewitnesses, the police stood as silent spectators when the crime was being committed and did nothing to stop it. Surely, it was a crisis of state power that had lost the ability to subdue the armed groups and establish order. But once the jigsaw pieces are put together, the 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 organised, 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. The police contingent, though present, did not make a worthwhile effort to pre-empt and prevent the loot and arson. The behaviour of police was, indeed, a mirror reflection of the Gojra episode.
It is important to mention that there is a blasphemy law and those indulging in blasphemous activities are accordingly dealt with. Only the state has the power to sentence the blasphemer and the law does not allow anyone to unleash collective punishment on any community just because a blasphemer belongs to it. Certainly, it was a conspiracy.
It was, however, encouraging that the Punjab government took immediate damage control actions. The Punjab Chief Minister ordered a judicial inquiry and the construction of the destroyed houses within hours. Also, the concerned police officials were removed.
Many religious parties and ulemas also condemned the attack on Joesph Colony and termed it as “unjustified” and “un-Islamic”. 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 one’s own hands is to punish the perpetrators. 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 and valuables. It would, nevertheless, help in their early rehabilitation. The police claims to have arrested some of the perpetrators, but it remains to be seen if they will be convicted. Undoubtedly, courage must be found to stop and fight this madness.
In Pakistan, religious intolerance, violence and anger are on a rampage. 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 organisations 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.
It is expected that vulnerability to ethno-sectarian incidents would increase manifold during the coming days, as the caretaker setup takes over, with its primary focus on the execution of electoral process.
Moreover, the maintenance of law and order would 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.