The curse of religious fanaticism has struck once again. Not in the beautiful valleys of N.W.F.P but in Gojra, the heartland of industrial Punjab. This was not the work of a foreign funded militant group or a separatist movement. It was actually the result of propagating religious chauvinism, intolerance of diverse communities, distorting history, glorifying the use of force and promoting obedience and militancy in the past three decades as state policy and as an integral part of our curriculum.
Mukhtar Masih from Gojra is the caretaker of my maternal family’s home in Karachi since 1977. He was hired by my grandmother as a cook and today his son and his family also live in Karachi. Like other migrants to the cosmopolitan, he had supported his younger siblings and had steadily built a house at Gojra. Mukhtar spent sleepless nights last weekend when his locality of Christian Colony was looted and burned. His younger brother, Javed Masih, a sanitary worker in Civil Hospital Gojra for the past 17 years narrated the following accounts to the writer.
Javed mentioned that the episode began at a Christian wedding in the nearby village of Korian on Thursday evening, July 29th, 2009. He said that people were throwing money at the bride groom’s wedding party but later neighbors alleged that torn pages of the Qur’an were used to shower the party as well. Javed questioned how was it possible for people to use pages from a holy book at a wedding reception? Why would anyone in their right mind do such a thing? It has now been learned that children had unknowingly cut pages of an old Islamic Studies textbook to use as shreds to shower on the wedding party. Those who had initially raised the claim of desecration were satisfied the next day when it was proven that illiterate street kids were responsible for unintentionally tearing a textbook, not the holy Qur’an.
However, Javed mentioned that even after the first claimants had taken back their statements, local maulvis of Korian began to announce the story of Christians tearing out pages of the Qur’an and throwing them on the road. The same allegations were heard by Javed at Gojra, instilling fear in the entire community of minorities in the city. They then heard news of rioting after the Friday prayers in Korian and feared the same in Gojra. According to Javed, 2 churches and nearly 80 homes were destroyed at Korian. Calls for complete shutter-down and wheel jam strike on Saturday resounded all over Gojra by the evening of Friday, July 30th.
Javed mentioned that crowds had begun to gather on Friday night, awaiting any spark to trigger violence on the Christians at Gojra. As the announcements of desecration continued on Saturday morning, Javed and his friends decided to pacify the aggrieved Muslims of their city. They knew a falsified story was instigating people at Gojra but thought it wise to calmly discuss it with their fellow citizens. They even demanded from the amassed crowds that if a desecration incident had taken place than the culprit must be found and punished.
It was to no avail since the instigators had succeeded in mobilizing more and more people. Realizing the imminent threat to their lives, Javed and his friends contacted higher authorities including the offices of nazims, MPA, MNA and even the Chief Minister House at Lahore. The only reply received was that they were sending police reinforcements to Gojra. Javed repeatedly told them that the police was insufficient to control the enraged crowd and that rangers or the army was needed to protect them. He also told them about continued announcements of ‘make mince meat out of kafirs’ and ‘punish the blasphemous’ but unfortunately his pleas fell on deaf ears.
At this point, Javed mentioned that Mr. Qadeer Awan, a local real estate magnet plus influential businessman met with the terrified Christians. The Christian Colony at Gojra is located close to Awan Colony, a settlement named after Mr. Qadeer Awan. Javed said that minorities are always apprehensive of Mr. Qadeer since he is known to harbor intolerant views. His presence was strange but also comforting that an influential person of the city might be able to calm the masses down.
Javed said that Mr. Qadeer promised them that nothing would happen to their homes and that the government was busy controlling the situation in the nearby village of Korian. He assured them that they were completely safe and the police was at their disposal. This was temporary respite since the calls for revenge from the infidels continued unabated.
Javed narrated that at 10 p.m. the first group of youngsters from Awan Colony descended onto their streets. They began to ruthlessly beat any person in the colony and looted whatever they could get their hands on in the hastily deserted homes. Javed said that he grabbed his family members, cash and some important documents before running for his life. He witnessed rowdy men kicking open doors and throwing precious items of Christian homes outside. Javed saw ten men chasing after one twenty years old Christian boy, throwing sticks and stones at him. His family was one of the lucky ones since they escaped from Gojra unharmed. He stated that people who could not escape managed to find safe havens with Muslim families at Gojra, while others fled to Faisalabad, Jhang and nearby Toba Tek Singh.
The most horrifying incident reported in the news and confirmed by Javed is the murder of Hameed Masih, a 50 years old renowned painter of Gojra. Hameed had arrived late from work and was caught in the middle of different Muslim groups plundering the Christian colony. Javed said that everyone in Gojra and its adjoining areas knew Hameed as an exemplary and honest artist. Not a single soul could ever suspect Hameed of desecrating the Qur’an or even satirizing the Muslim faith. Javed adamantly stated that Muslims of his city would confirm this truth about Hameed.
As the mob pounded Hameed, Javed said that eyewitnesses saw policemen futilely trying to protect him. He said that one policeman was shot while many others were injured trying to help Hameed and his family. Two women and a child of his home including Hameed were killed by the mad crowd. However, the barbarism did not stop there.
As policemen departed from the colony, Javed saw around 30 men dressed in tight fitting, black shalwar kameez arriving at the scene. He said they were members of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba from Jhang. These men possessed a special chemical that they sprayed on houses and then fired to ignite the fuel. These same men threw the flammable liquid on Hameed’s family and burned the dead bodies.
There was order in the mayhem as the Christian homes were first looted by local men and then burned by these outsiders. A Pentecostal Church was also recklessly burned down. In all, nine people were, almost 75 homes burned and more than 125 houses looted in Gojra.
Javed said the Chief Minister Punjab, Mr. Shahbaz Sharif came to meet them on Wednesday, August 5th and promised affected families Rs. 3 – 5 lakhs for the damages incurred. He also promised to bring the culprits to justice.
Javed was ambivalent about the promises made by the same government which had failed to heed his calls for help before any of the violence began. He also mentioned that the stipulated amount is far less than expected by families who have not only lost their homes but also jewelry, furniture, household appliances and especially the painstakingly collected dowry for their daughters. Javed said that at least Rs.15 – 20 lakhs per family would be needed to compensate them for their loss.
Mukhtar Masih is devastated by the loss of his retirement home, build after three decades of effort in Karachi. He could not ever imagine such violence taking place in his small town of Gojra. Mukhtar remembers how this is the place where he and his father had intermingled easily with Christians and Muslims and enjoyed the festivities of both faiths without any hesitation. Like his brethren, he too has little hope of support from the government.
As the usual condemnations and promises for justice are being made, it is imperative to connect this incident with the rising religious extremism in the country. The recent blast at a madrassa in Mian Chano has revealed the deep roots of Jihadi networks in the Punjab. The arrest of a religious leader in South Punjab caught after delivering child suicide bombers to Baituallah Mehsud in South Waziristan is another proof of this dangerous element in the breadbasket of Pakistan. Security agencies have to become more stringent for eradicating such destructive groups and arresting members of banned outfits like the Sipah-e-Sahaba.
Furthermore, it is high time for ordinary citizens of Pakistan to realize their lethal recourse towards violence, especially on superficial allegations of blasphemy. This is part of the general malaise afflicting our society today. The Human Rights Commission Pakistan monthly reports numerous killings based on false pretexts of heresy, on both Muslims and minorities. Rather than denouncing such incidents, it is depressing to look at a vast majority questioning the ‘real’ facts and suspecting all crimes committed as hidden agendas of India or Israel for destroying Pakistan. Add to this the doubletalk of religious ulema, who similar to identifying suicide bombers as ‘fedayeen’ forbidden only if they target innocent Muslims, never preach harmony with non-Muslims as an Islamic edict but only mention it as a socio-cultural necessity. The tendency to distrust and label all non-Muslims as enemies of our Islamic Republic is a gross error on the part of our past and present leaders.
The malaise of religious extremism has caused episodes like Gojra to reoccur on a daily basis. Jagdish Kumar, a factory worker in Karachi was killed by a violent mob of coworkers in April 2008. Niamat Ahmer, Tahir Iqbal and Manzoor Masih were similarly executed before their cases were heard in court. Three days after the destruction in Gojra, hundreds of people attacked a leather processing unit under Muridke and killed two people over alleged desecration of the Qur’an. Worst still, one must remember the murder of late Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti of Lahore High Court, killed in his chamber by fanatics after he acquitted two Christians sentenced for blasphemy in 1997. This is the dead end one reaches when fighting against the archaic and blatantly discriminatory blasphemy laws promulgated by the great Zia Ul Haq.
The time is now ripe for the Supreme Judicial Council to bravely step up and reform Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code which has led to the death of hundreds of Pakistanis based only on hearsay, half truths and senseless allegations.