December Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 3 years ago

A violent and uncontrolled mob, the exploitation of religion to camouflage hidden motives, and the complete inability of state institutions to discharge their constitutional duty to protect minorities are what define the burning of a large chipboard factory on GT Road, Jhelum on November 20. The genesis of this tragedy has its roots in fresh allegations of blasphemy levelled, this time against members of the Ahmadi community who owned a factory in the area. Established in 1947, this enterprise was reduced to ashes and rubble within a few hours, and the perpetrators of the arson comprised  people living in the area, many of whom were employed at the factory.

It began when the police desisted from arresting the factory owner whom the cleric at the local mosque had accused from the pulpit, through a loudspeaker — the use of which for khutbas (sermons), is by law, illegal — of blasphemy. An angry mob collected and went on the rampage, setting the building on fire and looting everything they could find from the houses of the factory’s managerial staff and even from the quarters of low-grade workers at the factory. Heavy domestic furniture like tables and sofas, which they could not carry with them, meanwhile, was burnt. The factory owner’s residence, too, was set ablaze. Residents of these premises had to flee for their lives.

While the police did not arrest the factory owner, it did, according to senior police officer Adnan Malik, arrest and register a blasphemy case against the head of security at the factory, who had been accused of ordering the burning of copies of the Quran. Four other people were also arrested and later released. But even these actions were not sufficient to stem the carnage as announcements were made at local mosques riling up the public against the factory.

In the aftermath, the gutted area made for a sad sight. In one home the school uniforms of young girls were still hanging in a closet, pygmy turtles slowly moved around in a glass bowl, bits of food lay on tables, a maid’s slippers lay on the rug by the kitchen door — symbols of everyday, ordinary lives. But in a flash that life seemed over. The people who lived in these homes were forced to run, leaving those lives behind.

It seemed as though an entire community was being made to pay for an unsubstantiated charge by a fire-spouting cleric. Mob psyche does not, of course develop instantly. In this case repeated calls from the pulpits of the area’s mosques and SMSs exhorting believers to wage jihad against minorities, and allegations of the Holy Quran having been burnt, continued to fire the imagination and zeal of the largely disenfranchised people of the area. That the calls were made from the loudspeakers in mosques in blatant violation of the recently promulgated Loudspeaker Act and the National Action Plan seemed to have been completely ignored by the area’s authorities.

In the space of three to four hours the momentum built, culminating in the mob violence. Interestingly, the factory is situated about five kilometres from the headquarters of the district police and district administration, where announcements from loudspeakers are clearly audible. But no move was made to pre-empt what was clearly brewing, and no agency was able to intercept or trace any SMS.

The public representatives of the area meanwhile, say they only learnt of the incident when the mob had blocked the GT Road. Mehar Fayyaz, a member of the Punjab Assembly in whose constituency the ill-fated factory lay, says he came to know about the incident after the crowd had started to march towards the factory. He contends nobody in the area told him about the announcement on the mosques’ loudspeakers.

The police only sprang to action when the factory administration informed them that angry crowds had gathered outside the factory. And, when they did reach the scene, they comprised less than two dozen policemen — and none of them in riot gear.

So what does this indicate? Is the police incapable of addressing such situations — as have been witnessed only too often in the Punjab recently, among others, the burning alive of a Christian couple in a brick kiln. Or is it unwilling to act? There can be no denying that there is a dire need to revamp the police department in terms of weapons, training and human resources. The lack of these hinder police performance. In the Jhelum episode, the DPO (District Police Officer) Mujahid Akbar Khan who arrived at the scene was reportedly hit by bricks from the crowds when he was trying to help the families fleeing from the residential apartments as the factory was being attacked.

The day after the arson episode, the Ahmadiyya mosque situated about one kilometre from the factory in the Kalla Gujran area came under attack. An angry crowd converged and inscribed graffiti on its walls. Members of the crowd claimed they had discovered desecrated copies of the Holy Quran, bottles of liquor and CDs of porn movies from the Ahmadi place of worship. With such charges, the religious zealots on the scene further enflamed the passions of the mob. But in the same area a shopkeeper, who is not a member of the minority community remarked, “This is a place of worship. It was established in the early 1980s. I see the elderly people from the homes in a nearby street visit the mosque daily. How is it possible that these clearly decent, old people — men and women, parents and grandparents — watch porn movies and drink here? I have never seen them coming out of their mosque in an intoxicated condition.”

While some political leaders and law-enforcers have expressed regret about the incident, nothing has changed. Unless strong action is taken against the sponsors of hate and violence, unless the public is taken on board and educated, unless the police are trained and equipped to deal with such situations, the chances are minorities will remain an endangered species in Pakistan.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2015 issue.