It happened umpteenth times in the past five years in Punjab. The forces of communal hate, intolerance, greed, qabza and extortion in the name of religious honour were unleashed on a Christian community of Badami Bagh in Lahore. The script of Shanti Nagar, Gojra, Kurrian, Kasur and Sangla Hill was superimposed with a familiar narrative. The initial brawl between two drunkards, 295C, police investigation, rising tensions, helplessness of police/local administration and finally the communal inferno are charades all too familiar. Bad luck for the poor Christians, the fury this time far outweighed the intensity, complicity and destruction in the past. A Holy Cross strung with shoes was thrown in the inferno with a bold banner advocating beheadings over blasphemy prominently displayed across the street. The target chosen was in the heart of the provincial metropolis and ironically an area where all roads lead to the booming steel business. Chickens had come home to roost.
As observed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, this gory incident was avoidable; but deplorably not contained by any desire, urgency or affirmative action of the local administration. There was no curfew imposed, no activation of Section 144, and as the fury reached its nadir, no warning shots or tear gas fired. The tragedy built up over a course of three days. No lessons from the incidents in the past were taken into account. Confronted with hapless and poor people, the inferno operation was methodical and executed in phases. First, the arrest followed by FIR, secondly evacuation of the families under a shadow of threat, thirdly, looting of the houses and finally the use of incendiaries and burning at large. Though conspicuously ineffective before the inferno at Saint Joseph’s Colony, the civilian munitions of maintaining law and order were in full display at Youhannabad, where local Christians in peaceful protest blocked Ferozepur Road.
The live telecasting of the scene sent shockwaves world over. The media had predicted such an imminent tragedy and was therefore ready when the first flames of fire leaped to the skies. Such is the retardant potential of the Punjab government that it continued to give simplifications over the tragedy through its spokespersons and zombie minority representatives.
Any noticeable leader entering Joseph’s Colony was greeted by a group of zombies perched on a rooftop shouting Nawaz Sharif Zindabad. During Imran Khan’s visit to the area, there was a deliberate attempt to stop him from visiting the charred streets. The local police deployed in the area made no attempts to clear these rowdy zombies; the lowest levels one can stoop to in politics Gawalmandi-Badami Bagh style.
After I had finished talking on a TV show, an elderly Muslim from the area took me to a side and said that the looting and burning scenes had reminded him of the partition in 1947. The old man had the bull by the horns; a nation bent on self destruction, a crescendo creating divides amongst divides. The flames of communalism, sectarianism and religiously inspired violence continue to rise even after 65 years of independence. The issue is no more the Hindu-Muslim divide but rather the identity of a Muslim. Yet the repeated violence against Christians cannot be explained in the simplification of the violence by militant groups. In these cases, these are the neighbours who turn on their neighbours, having lived in the same localities for generations.
As a Pakistani I have a number of questions that beg answers and explanations.
Barring a few who are successful and wealthy, why has the Pakistani society not been able to assimilate non Muslims as mainstream citizens? After all, their leaders supported Qaid e Azam in Pakistan Movement, got All India Muslim League the majority in the Punjab Assembly and did outstanding social work. Perhaps the answer can be found in the political evolution of the state sans Jinnah’s script. The Objective Resolution raised issues of Muslimhood while the military alliances were built around a paradigm of godless communism and infidel Hindu versus jihad. Successive military dictatorships and democracies formed their scripts around religious legitimacy alienating not only communities within Muslims but also the non Muslims. Constitutionalism had been opportunist and divisive.
Pakistan’s political parties have also failed to play their roles in assimilating diversity. Built around hallow religious slogans, preservation of elitist interests and personalities, they view participation of minorities amongst them an affront and resign them to non-descript minority roles and exclusive wings. The fervor of one ethnic political party from Sindh in favour of the victims of Joseph Colony is incomprehensible from the fact that Issa Naghri in Karachi is under siege of target killings and extortion for over a year. Unless political parties do not open their ranks to non Muslims and give them opportunities in mainstream politics, the syndrome of ghettos cannot be challenged.
Pakistan’s civil society has also failed to play its role in integrating communities. Had such civic organizations been effectives, neighbourhoods would have never become a potential threat to minority enclaves close to it. They have always tried to keep such colonies at a distance. Cognisant that their presence is not welcome, minorities too have chosen to stay away and live in their own slums and ghettos in relative safety but for the unplanned creeping urbanization. Pakistan’s educated elite, though a product of missionary institutions failed to pay back in absorbing these communities. This has led to a social inbreeding both in the haves and have nots.
Pakistan’s education system also promotes divisions and divides. Abundance of hate literature in the curriculum, blasphemous comments against other religions and failure to recognize the contribution of others to Pakistan inculcate an exclusive notion amongst Muslim children. The concept of us and them ingrained in the formative years take its toll on diversity as strength when it matters most.
Having been in the middle for two days, I drove back to Islamabad with a tempest howling within me. As the nature in fury of fierce rain and hailstones hit the windscreen, I noticed a rainbow in the distant sky across the Kallar Kahar Range. It reminded me of the faith and hope in Noah after the great flood. Amidst the sadness, a ray of hope began to grow. I began to see a playback of positive images dancing before my eyes. Those young educated Muslim girls hugging kids, distributing copies and pencils and consoling the broken ladies. I could see Ulema one after another condemning the incident as un-Islamic. I began to feel proud of the media for its unbiased narration of events and the many calls and tweets of Muslim friends who condemned the tragedy and offered help. I could see Imran Khan standing amidst the ruins with pain and anger writ on his face telling the people and media that we shall make a new Pakistan.
As I cleared the meandering range, the rainbow in the distant kept reminding me that thesis would soon overtake the anti thesis. Passing through a river of fire, the forces of love, moderation and Jinnahists would finally prevail over all exploitative agendas. Gold only glitters after passing through fire and a diamond only takes shape after grinding, scrubbing and rubbing.