Pakistan fails its Christians — again
The dual suicide attacks on Lahore’s Christian churches last Sunday were a continuation of evidently unstoppable violence against the country’s minorities. A gruesome lynching and burning of two Muslim men by a charged mob followed the attack. Christian protestors, sidelined and neglected by the state, attacked Metro Bus stations, blocked major roads and also impeded VIP movements. They were baton-charged and after two days of rioting, the funerals of the blast victims took place. Ghastly as it was, the mob lynching of the two Muslim victims dominated the news space and social media debates rather than the original act of terrorism. Once again, there was something to obfuscate. Sadly, the angry mob did not help its cause either.
Nearly two per cent of Pakistan’s population comprises Christians, mostly poor and marginalised. Pakistan’s hypocritical society makes a class of people clean their homes and streets and then has the audacity to call them ‘churaas’ (a derogatory term for a sweeper). Such is the level of prejudice that many jobs of municipal cleaners specify that only Christians are needed, as many Muslims are averse to performing ‘menial’ tasks. Ironically, there are street signs everywhere citing a saying by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that “Cleanliness is half the faith”.
Ingrained prejudices combined with the Islamic nationalist identity have meant that Christians are lesser citizens in the Islamic Republic. A non-Muslim cannot be head of the state. Children from minority communities are made to read textbooks that denigrate ‘non-believers’ and ‘infidels’. Certain laws on our statute books expose the broadly poverty-stricken Christian community to abuses of the law. Institutionalised discrimination has accompanied the propagation of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ that engenders silence and acceptance of the defacto second-class status of a non-Muslim.
This is the fourth major attack on Christians in the last six years (after Gojra, Joseph Colony and the Peshawar carnage). The earlier attacks, such as the 2009 Gojra attack, led to the torching of 60 houses and a church and eight Christians, including four women, were burned alive. Dozens were wounded in these clashes. Reportedly, the police silently witnessed armed men attacking the Christian settlement. After six years, no accused has been convicted; and many who were apprehended have been released on bail. An inquiry tribunal held its proceedings and submitted a report that remained outside public purview until 2013 when a caretaker administration released it. The report implicated members of the ruling PML-N and operatives of the security apparatus accusing them of negligence. The law enforcement and intelligence apparatus knew that banned extremist groups were encouraging the mobs, but according to the inquiry, no preventive action was taken. The report also recommended the review and reform of the blasphemy laws of the country. None of the recommendations were implemented by the Punjab administration that continues to rule and was returned with a thundering mandate in the 2013 elections. Such is the level of public apathy.
Again in 2013, an enraged mob torched dozens of houses in Joseph Colony, Lahore. Reportedly, 160 houses, 18 shops and two small churches were burnt by protesters. The pictures of young men celebrating the carnage are now part of our record of national shame. The police registered a case against mob members for ransacking the houses, but they were released on bail while the man thought to have committed blasphemy was convicted and sentenced to death. The Punjab government said it would hold yet another judicial inquiry into the incident. The activist Supreme Court took notice and in an interim verdict said that the police had failed in their duty to protect citizens and that after an inquiry, the negligent officials be taken to task. No further headway was made in the investigation or inquiry.
In both these cases, the Punjab government failed to hold those responsible accountable and the bureaucratic establishment got away, quite literally, in this case with murder. The Punjab government’s patronage or fear of militant groups is also well known. But all this is not limited to Punjab. The third major attack was in September 2013 when at least 78 people were killed and over 100 injured in a suicide bombing at a Peshawar church. The ruling party of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa could not bring itself to condemn the perpetrators openly.
In 2011, a Christian minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed and the attackers are yet to be convicted. The harrowing tale of a Christian couple lynched and burnt in a brick kiln in 2014 is still an open wound. A pregnant woman being killed on trumped-up charges of blasphemy was perhaps the nadir of our collective existence. The 2005 attacks in Sangla Hill and the 1997 carnage of the twin villages of Shanti Nagar-Tibba Colony near Khanewal remain unpunished. These villages were burnt down by a 20,000-strong mob allegedly with police assistance.
Over time, by allowing multiple centres of power to emerge due to the policy of supporting proxy jihad, non-state actors have splintered and multiplied. This policy has now backfired. The interior minister and many analysts call attacks on minorities acts of desperation by the TTP since the launch of operations by the military. By terming these attacks a ‘reaction’ absolves the law-enforcement agencies of their basic duties: intelligence-gathering and sharing, taking preventive action and prosecuting the accused. Hopelessness, lack of trust in the state and anger are key drivers of mob justice. The mob violence after the Youhanabad incident is worrying. In recent years, at least 10 ‘Muslim’ mobs in different places have killed those accused of blasphemy or suspicion of a crime. If this is not an indication of state failure then what else is? The ideological reconstruction of the Pakistani state and society since the 1980s is bearing its poisonous fruits. In addition to the country’s non-Muslim population, adherents of certain sects within Islam are also under attack. The majority Muslim community is desensitised to what the minorities are going through. It is not enough to say that everyone is under attack in Pakistan. It is time to acknowledge that Pakistani nationalism needs another anchor and that extremists have hijacked our religion-based ‘identity’.