June Issue 2017

By | Newsbeat National | Published 2 years ago

An angry mob protests against the alleged blasphemer.

WhatsApp messenger, the web messaging application, has become a widely used tool for communication owing to its assurance of end-to-end encryption and the option of one-to-one, or group communication. It is popular among journalists and social activists for news updates, and discussions on various issues.

Its popularity can be gauged by its 1.2 billion users across the globe and acquisition by Facebook at a whopping price of 19 billion dollars. The app is often used by traders and businessmen for updates on the prices of commodities and items they deal in.

But exchanges on the app are not restricted to business dealings, and other material, including religious messages, entertainment, pictures and videos are widely distributed through WhatsApp groups. Prakash Narayan, a local trader, and member of the Hindu community, was part of many WhatsApp groups formed by traders in the bazaar of Hub Chowki, a town in district Lasbela, that serves as an entry point to Karachi from Balochistan. On the evening of May 2, 2017, Narayan received an image on WhatsApp, followed by an audio file. The morphed image (as described in the FIR registered against Prakash) shows a venerated holy place with “Allah” written over it, and the superimposed image of a boy standing with his foot on the roof of the structure. In the accompanying audio message, amidst abuses and expletives addressed to the boy, a man appeals to anyone who views the clip, to disseminate it through social networks, so that the boy disrespecting the holy place can be identified and nabbed. He claims he has forwarded the clip to everyone he knows, and says, “Tum sab ko tumhari maa ka wastaa, isey zyada se zyada logon tak pohnchao.”

Prakash gave in to these entreaties, and as a gesture of respect to the religious sentiments of his Muslim friends, forwarded the appeal to a group named “Only Funny Videos,” which has 58 members, mostly fellow traders. He didn’t realise the sensitivity of the morphed image and had no idea of the danger he was letting himself in for.The image immediately drew adverse reactions from members of the group, who paid no attention to his reasons for sharing the image. They termed it blasphemous, and an insult to their beliefs, that too by a non-Muslim.

On the next day, when Prakash was questioned by traders and shopkeepers from the market, he admitted to forwarding the image, and tried to explain the purpose behind the act. But his affirmation was taken as an admission of guilt, and the crowd started beating him. Someone informed the police, who rescued Prakash and took him to the police station. Later, Saleem Shahzad Solangi, a trader, and joint secretary of the Muslim League Youth Wing, accompanied by others, arrived at the police station to lodge a First Information Report (FIR) under Article 295-A and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, accusing Prakash of committing blasphemy. The day after an enraged mob gathered outside the police station intending to lynch Prakash, a member of another WhatsApp group of Hub residents posted the same image and audio. But when confronted by members of the group, he sent out an audio message declaring that he was a devout Muslim and apologised for sharing the image.

He also stated that many of his friends from the Hindu community had received the image and were requested to forward it. He was told that India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) was spreading this content, and had tried to warn his own contacts. In this case, the issue was not leaked out, the content was removed from the group, and members accepted the apology.

Raja Shaukat Ali, a journalist who reports for the Independent News Agency, says the issue of blasphemy has become so contentious that even law enforcement officials now hesitate to go beyond calculated responses. He referred to a meeting with Zia Mandokhel, the District Police Officer (DPO), Lasbela and said, “Mandokhel, along with the Chairman Hub Municipal Corporation, Rajab Ali Rind, Frontier Constabulary (FC) officials, and the SHOs of some police stations, were at the forefront of resisting the mob that gathered outside Hub City Police station. Responding to a question about the veracity of the allegations, he refused to comment, however, saying that the matter was under investigation in court.

Another journalist from the Hub Press Club, who works with a TV channel said, “On the evening of his arrest, when a picture of Prakash sitting in the police van, with the muzzle of an AK-47 rifle pointed towards him was posted in WhatsApp groups, some people responded with curses and demands to hang him publicly. Others started speculating that since he belonged to an-other faith, Prakash would be rescued and taken abroad.”Anger and outrage at Prakash was turned against the entire Hindu community, and some new entrants into the politics of Lasbela — members of a proscribed sectarian organisation — called for a protest, asking members from adjacent towns to join them. Shopkeepers were asked to keep their shops closed.

“A few zealots were followed by the crowd, looking for an opportunity to vandalise and ransack our shops and warehouses,” said a Hindu trader. He recalled the incidents following the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992, by the Hindu right wing, when a protest in Hub turned violent and resulted in attacks on the shops of Hindu traders. “They had similar plans on the day they gathered to protest against the alleged blasphemer. But the police and FC had been deployed to protect the shops and residential locality of the Hindu community, where Prakash’s family lives.”

Another trader said, “There were apprehensions that the mobile phone shop owned by Prakash, and the ware-house of food items owned by his family would be attacked and ransacked. The landlord, our Muslim friend, shifted all the valuables from the shops to his home, and didn’t allow anyone to exploit the chaotic situation. Prakash’s family has also shifted from Hub to a safer place.

”When the mob that had gathered outside the district press club moved to the Hub city police station, and started demanding that the alleged blasphemer be handed over to them, the police and FC officials showed the ringleaders an empty lock-up, and said the accused had already been shifted to jail. The zealots in the crowd kept on giving fiery speeches to incite the mob and some people attacked the DPO Lasbela, ADC Javed Mengal and DSP Khoso. A constable was injured when the crowd pelted stones, while a 12-year-old boy, Qudratullah, who was working at a mechanic’s shop was hit by a stray bullet and succumbed to his injuries.The restraint shown by the police and FC brought the situation under control.

The Deputy Commissioner of Lasbela, Mujeebur Rehman Qambarani reached out to religious clerics from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Pakistan Sunni Tehrik (PST), and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) as well. “Mukhi Sham Lal, a Hindu community leader and former provincial minister, who joined the JUI-F last year, approached the party head, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, to use his influence. His contacts with Maulana Ghulam Qadir Bawani, district president JUI-F, and principal Jamia Qasimul Uloom Bhawani, Hub Chowki, and Maulana Shah Muhammad, compelled them to take part in mediation efforts initiated by the district management, along with the district leadership of PST, which paved the way for normalisation of the situation and opening of the bazaar.Owing to the fears and apprehensions of the Hindu community, the DC Lasbela, visited Hindu localities, followed by a visit from deputy commissioner Hashim Ghilzai of the adjacent Kalat district to the Hindu community, assuring them of support and security.

On the surface, an uneasy calm now prevails in the town of Hub. However, the Hindu community living in Hub and other towns of Lasbela, still harbours concerns. A couple of years ago, they were threatened with demands of extortion and kidnapping for ransom by armed militant groups and they fear the accusations of blasphemy could pit religious zealots and proscribed militant outfits against them.

During the last few years, the demography of Hub and adjacent parts of Lasbela has undergone many changes. Internal displacements due to political unrest and natural calamities have brought people from Wadh, Awaran, Panjgur, Turbat, Khuzdar, Gwadar and many other areas to Hub, where they run small businesses and find work in industries. Dominated by Sindhi-speaking Lasis, district Lasbela draws traders and workers from different parts of Sindh. Being an entry route to Karachi, small traders and businessmen from the Pashtun belt of Balochistan also seek opportunities in Hub and their numbers have grown over the years.

The town is at the centre of a thriving informal trade in Iranian oil, cement, and steel bars. The profits from smuggling commodities have flooded the local market with black money, which has found its way into the real estate business. There are mushrooming residential projects on both sides of the RCD Highway, from Hub Chowki Bazaar to Gadani Maur. The influx of black money has contributed to an escalation in the prices of commercial properties in Hub Bazaar, which have increased manifold. There are fears that the desperate efforts from the new entrants to gain control of the markets, agricultural lands and valuable com-mercial properties, could drive them to forge alliances with religious zealots, and this will worsen the situation for the local Hindu community.

Such fears drew members of the Hindu community to join the JUI-F, which remains a significant player in the politics of Balochistan, though in recent months the party has itself come under attack from religious extremists. An attack on JUI-F general secretary and deputy chairman Senate, Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, in Mastung, Balochistan, was claimed by Daesh. On May 21, Vicky Kumar, the son of JUI-F ex-Senator Heman Das, was kidnapped from the family’s rice factory in Dera Murad Jamali, Balochistan. This is another incident adding to the growing sense of insecurity among the Hindu inhabitants of Balochistan, for whom a once-tolerant and inclusive environment is changing for the worse.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order