Stemming the spiral

It all began perhaps 25 years ago in the small town of Shanti Nagar, close to Khanewal where a Muslim mob burnt down at least 13 churches and 775 Christian homes. The episode ended in the death of some people and the suicide of a priest. Since then, these episodes of mob madness directed against minority communities have continued at sporadic intervals across the country, but mainly in Punjab. The latest episode of majoritarian mobs came on August 16, when multiple churches in Jaranwala were vandalized and scores of houses belonging to the Christian community were set on fire over alleged blasphemy allegations. Political leaders and the caretaker governments – both federal and Punjab – condemned the incident in no uncertain terms. Two cases were registered against arsonists, with 37 suspects named. According to the police, cases have been registered under the charges of terrorism and blasphemy, including 13 other provisions. More than 600 unknown people have also been included in the investigation. Punjab’s Caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi has said two main suspects are under arrest and in the custody of the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD), and that churches and homes will be rebuilt and restored. Meanwhile, one of the more high-profile visits to the affected area was that of Chief Justice-designate Qazi Faez Isa who on Saturday visited Jaranwala along with his wife expressed solidarity with the Christian community and assured them of complete support. According to media reports, Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar will also visit Jaranwala.

Four days since the incident, we have now heard condemnation from across the spectrum of our political leadership, religious scholars, police and others. But is that enough? The answer to that should be a resounding no. It is all very well for leaders to go and meet the Christian community, announce rebuilding their churches and homes, but apart from photo-ops and announcements, our state and government officials need to understand that we have a problem – a deep-rooted problem due to which our state is rotting away. When the National Action Plan (NAP) was announced after the horrific tragedy in the Army Public School (APS) Peshawar, we were told that it would be implemented in letter and spirit. Out of the 20 agenda points, we can point out two points which could have helped avoid incidents such as the one at Jaranwala. One, “Strict action against literature, newspapers and magazines promoting hatred, extremism, sectarianism and intolerance,” and two, “Taking effective steps against religious persecution.” We know very well that hate material is still available against minorities and religious persecution takes place every day in the country. Granted that the state is not behind such persecution as a policy, yet the way no action has been taken against those who indulge in such incidents is why our minorities do not feel safe. It is also important to realize that when our political leaders condemn such incidents but don’t mention how the law has been weaponized over the years, it means that they too are scared. Nothing can be more disturbing than the fact that we are a country whose political leaders are too scared to call out hatred and bigotry.

What is also essential is training for law enforcement, particularly the police, on how to deal with a mob, especially one that is baying for blood on religious grounds. The police seemed helpless in Jaranwala and Rangers were later called in. As a state, we need to spend more resources in training our police because it is them at the front-lines. Action should also be mandatory against all those who incite violence and take the law in their own hands. As it is, Pakistan has a very low number of minorities. And if we cannot even protect them, what good is the white in our flag?

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