After The Attack on Shanti Nagar and Khanewal: Ramification of Pakistan Blasphemy Laws. By Dr. Stephen Gill

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NOTE: Attacks on Shantinagar, Khanewal and on the surrounding areas on the 5th and the 6th of February of 1997 were the direct consequences of Pakistan blasphemy laws. For three weeks after the attack, no Government representative from the higher ranks visited the village. The prime minister, premiers and any cabinet minister did not issue a statement to sympathise with victims even from moral or a human point. The radio and television, owned by the state, were almost silent over the happening for several days. The destruction that was caused in Shantinagar by these wrong laws reminds one the destruction caused in 1947 when India was divided. This article was written about twelve years ago.

 The office of the Commission of Justice & Peace in Multan, run by the Roman Catholic Church, tried to contact Shantinagar over the phone. They failed because the attackers had cut off the telephone connections.  The office also tried to contact the District Magistrate at Khanewal; he was not available.

Whatever they came to know about Khanewal and Shantinagar was vague. The time when the office came to know something positive was at seven in the evening when a person from Shantinagar was able to rush to a factory outside the village to request the Commission of Justice and Peace for help. 

The Commission prepared a quick report and passed it on to the B.B.C. The news was broadcast at eight in the evening. This was the first news about the tragedies that people outside Khanewal and Shanti Nagar came to know. The office also contacted newspapers in Multan, asking them to be factual without being sensational. At the same time, they informed the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and also their friends outside Multan.

The Commission immediately called a meeting to get relief work. The first two trucks of relief goods went from Multan. The office also contacted representative of foreign television stations.  CCN and ZEE TV broadcast the news later about Shantinagar. On the 7th of February in the evening, the army lifted the curfew.  Fr. Darshan Therodore, Fr. Mani, Peter Jacob and Aftab Mughal visited the village to get the first hand knowledge. This equipped the Commission of Justice & Peace with additional information to pass on to the media, and to deal with the situation. On the 10th of February, the office arranged a visit by five members of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, including Sister Naseem, Sister  Anna, Iqbal and Aftab from their office.

They encouraged the people to file complaints to the police. The people of Shantinagar identified several attackers, but the police refused to register those cases. On the 11th of February, the Commission was able to form a team of 15 High Court lawyers to give free legal assistance to the victims.  On the 16th of February, a Christian-Muslim dialogue group  was organised in Multan. It celebrated the Eid, a festival of Muslims, at Pastoral Institute where Sister Naseem was the resource person. The purpose of this organization was to build a bridge of understanding between both the faiths.

  On the 15th of February, when the army left, a Muslim from Aria Nagar, a neighbouring village, made an allegation against the residents of Shanti nagar for insulting the Koran. He brought a few torn pages to a police officer, stationed outside Shantinagar for security reasons. After cross-questioning, the police officer found the allegation without a base. Consequently, he did not let the matter go further (The Nation, March 15, 1997, page 14)

Christian leaders from all over Pakistan visited Shantinagar with food and other necessities.  Most help came from other Christians of the country. Bishop John Joseph visited the village on the 21st of February and gave assurance for every possible help. As chairperson of the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace Pakistan, he told the Inquiry Tribunal that  "the Separate Electorate for religious minorities and Blasphemy Laws were directly responsible for such incidents which indicated rising religious intolerance. He said these laws created divisions in the society on basis of religion and turned non-Muslims into second rate citizens."  (The Mirror, Vol. 1, issue 3, May 1997).

 For three weeks after the attack, no Government representative from the higher ranks visited the village. The prime minister, premiers and any cabinet minister did not issue a statement to sympathise with victims even from moral or a human point. The radio and television, owned by the state, were almost silent over the happening for several days.

 The written media however made a considerable coverage to inform the public. Some publications wrote analytical articles and condemned the police. Slowly, most political parties began coming out of their ideological hibernation to condemn the happening. It was the first time when nearly all the political parties blamed the police for this tragedy.  As the story of revenge spread, Christians across Pakistan began holding anti-government demonstrations.  The notable ones were held in Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Rowalpindi, and Islamabad. The tragedy was almost ignored by the West. However, the demonstration in Karachi attracted international attention. The CNN World News of February 13, 1997, announced that

 "Police on Thursday beat and fired tear gas at Christian demonstrators protesting anti-Christian clashes last week that left one person dead and two churches destroyed. Hundreds of Christians joined the march through this southern port city to mark riots last Wednesday in Khanewal, 600 miles (950km) to the north.

 "About 200 policemen charged the marchers with batons as they approached the residence of the governor of southern Sindh province. At least one marcher was seriously injured when he was hit by a tear gas shell. Many were severely beaten by police, witness said. Police said they arrested more than 300 people. Last week's clashes have increased tensions between Pakistan's majority Muslim community and minority Christian population."

 The Toronto Star (Canada) of the 14th of February, (p.A18) published pictures of the Christian demonstrators who were restrained with rope in Karachi. The police used tear gas.  The police also fired shots in the air and used batons to disperse them. Several demonstrators, including children, were injured with the batons. The police detained about two hundred Christians. "A Christian protester, Naveed Kauser, who had a head injury, said the police manhandled peaceful demonstration."                                                         

   The commissioner of Karachi told that in all five hundred and seventy-four persons, including several children, were arrested. Sixty children were released and many more were in jail for days. (Jehde Haq, 3 March, 1997, p. 10 &11). Christians were arrested under unlawful assembly, rioting with deadly weapons, disobeying  the orders of the public officers and acting with the intention to murder people. The punishments under the Pakistan Penal Code ranged from one month to ten years of rigorous imprisonment, fine and blood money. Several protesters were released on bail within a week. One protester Feroz Maqbool was injured severally by police firing. He died in the hospital.

In England, a demonstration was held in front of the High Commission for Pakistan in London. Demonstrators appealed the United Nations to take notice of the injustice done to the Christians in the name of religion, misusing the blasphemy laws. These laws should be repelled.

  In the United States, Pakistani Christians demonstrated in front of the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC. Christians came from Philadelphia, Albany, Maryland to take part in the demonstration. Chairperson of the Pakistani-American Christian organisation told that Christians "were subjected to rape, beatings, torture and death penalties under the Shariat." (New India, Feb. 26, 1993)

  There was no news in the Canadian press or over the Canadian television for a week. On the 13th of February, there was a short news that appeared in the Toronto Star under the tile "Action Urged for Christians in Pakistan." According to the staff reporter Frank Calleja, who quoted Farukh Mehdi Khan that the West had ignored the tragedy. A Pakistani group of Christians gathered in Brampton to offer their support to the families in Shantinagar. Several Christians decided to set up tents at Queen's Park for a one day fast.

 Christians from Pakistan gathered on the 14 of February in front of the Pakistani Consulate in Toronto. It was led by Shadab Khokhar, chairperson of AWAZ.The main questions that the media and Christian leaders deliberated covered the following: 

 1. According to the blasphemy laws of the country the punishment for desecrating the Prophet Mohammed and the Holy Koran was only death if the matter was decided by court. Normally such cases were decided by the fury of zealots as the past incidents had proved it. If the alleged culprit was saved somehow from the fury of zealots, the police and the jail authorities did not let that victim survive to see the day of the final verdict from the court.

 If victims survived both and were freed honourably by court, they were not free in a real sense. To save their lives, the victims ran away from Pakistan. Not only that, even their immediate families were not free from life threats. Under this terror-filled climate, only insane would dare to desecrate the Koran.

 2. The torn pages that were found in the abandoned mosque bore the names and addresses of the victims. It is like writing one's own death sentence and causing trouble to the immediate family and also to the whole community. It is inconceivable that normal humans would commit such offenses, revealing their identities and waiting in their homes for the fury of the police and the militants to be unleashed on them. 

 3. The victims who were alleged to have written their names and addresses did not know how to read and write. The police officers who devised that villainy, did not know that those alleged culprits were illiterate.

 4. The derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed that were written on the pages from the Koran were found in an abandoned mosque which was about six kilometres from Khanewal and about two kilometres from Shantinagar. There was a mosque in Shantinagar that was surrounded by Christians. It was much easier for Christians to throw those pages in that mosque. Why they should have taken the trouble of going that far to throw those papers?

 5. This small abandoned mosque had no light and people did not go there for prayers.  That night when two boys entered that abandoned mosque was a special night of Ramzan. On special occasions, devotees normally gather in larger mosques to meet and greet others.  Why these two boys had shunned the main mosques in favour of an abandoned mosque on that night of festivities?

 6. How in the night those boys were able to find the torn and mutilated pages from the Koran? Did they enter the mosque with some kind of light with them?

 7. Another interesting factor is the time element. At 8:30, p.m. Mohammed Shafi reported at the Khanewal Police Station about the desecration of the Koran at the mosque which was about six kilometres from there. Within thirty minutes, the police went to Shanti Nagar, more than six kilometres from Khanewal, and arrested the alleged illiterate culprits.

Meanwhile, the loudspeakers from different mosques of Khanewal and surrounding villages kept instigating the Muslims to get-together for revenge and jehad. The zealots had also time to go from village to village to have the announcements made. It seemed that written copies were provided to the mosques to make announcements to speed up the work.

  With all the facilities available in the west, it would be a wonder to accomplish all this in a short time, unless the people are already prepared for it. Certainly, the attack was pre-planned and the story of Mohammed Shafi was framed to instigate people, misusing the blasphemy laws.

 8. Considering the teachings of Christianity against violence and revenge, and also considering the past in Pakistan and abroad, Christians cannot indulge in the acts of desecration of the holy books of any religion in such ways, not in Pakistan at least. Moreover, such acts of vandalism would not help Christians. On the other hand, these despicable deeds will cost them dearly.

 9. On top of all this, citizens of any country do not have any right to take the law in their own hands. It is the responsibility of the police administration to maintain a law and order situation. It is the job of court to decided who is innocent and who is guilty. In this case, the local administration did not stop the zealots from taking the law in their own hands. It is because the whole plot for attack was hatched by the police who acted as the guardian of the Muslim religion; not the citizens.

 The attack was schemed by the officers of the Police Station at Khanewal Saddar and the fundamentalist leaders. Equipped with the sophisticated weapons, they marched as an army towards the Christian churches, hostels, dispensaries and houses."(flames& ashes) The fact is that behind the action for destruction and terror was the hand of personal enmity as it had before in all such cases since the implementation of the blasphemy laws and electorate system. Blinded with the dust of fanaticism, the attackers could not see that they were destroying the churches where Jesus was remembered whom those attackers believed as a prophet.  They burnt copies of the gospel that they also considered holy. What sort of faith is that? asked the editor of Jodith International, published from Lahore.

 The question was if those Christians in Pakistan were Infidels-- if they were not patriots-- if they had not sacrificed their lives for Pakistan--if they had not served Pakistan for development and progress?  The question was that why the minorities were not considered part of the nation.  Did it mean that only those who had the right to vote for Muslims were citizens?  Why the constitution of Pakistan did not guarantee protection to minorities?

Those police officers who carried the label of helpers were robbers. They were against the nation. It was obvious that the local administration did not care for the constitution of the country. Therefore, they were the criminals. Thousands of books that the mob had burnt included copies of the Koran and literature on Islam as well which had verses from the Koran. Did they not defile the Koran?  Were they not culprits for violating the blasphemy laws? The 6th of February, is considered the most pious and happy day for Muslims. The zealots celebrated that pious day by showing their power in that area. They burnt the personal belonging of the people and rendered thousands homeless. On that day, they broke the ordinary moral standards by waging an open war against an innocent and defenceless minority.  

Why the magistrate and the police officer went to tell the people of Shanti Nagar to hand over their weapons and leave their village. Instead, they should have tried to stop the mob or disperse them. They had more than enough time to do that. Fr. Darshan Theodore had informed the police long before the expected attack. The Jodat International posed such questions.

 Even several Muslim leaders found the police behind that dirty work. It was because the police wanted to take revenge when Christians reported against them to the higher authorities and demonstrated against their behaviour of kicking the Bible at the house of Baba Raji. There was no action against those police officers who were responsible for that disaster. 

 Mr. Ghuman, a police officer, had threatened the Christians before the attack that he would take revenge in such a way that those Christians would not be able to stand on their feet for fifty years. It becomes clear who tore and threw those pages in that abandoned mosque.

  "The Muslims from Aria Nagar were leading the Muslim attackers." (Page 14). The same newspaper says that one police officer involved with the case and who was the main instigator of the tragedy hailed from Area Nagar, predominantly a Muslim village nearby. (The Nation (Weekend) of the 15th of March, 1997)

 The residents of Shantinagar were certain that jealousy of the people of Aria Nagar, a neighbouring Muslim village, contributed towards the tragedy. They were jealous because the residents of Shanti Nagar were financially better off and more educated. The attackers destroyed a few houses completely because their owners led the investigation and protest against the police officers who defiled the Bible.

 It came out in those days that the D.S.P. Mr. Ghuman, first contacted the imam (priest) of the Shantinagar mosque to tear the pages from the Koran, mutilate them and hold the local Christians responsible for that vandalism. He refused to cooperate. He told the police officer that they were living for years amicably in Shanti Nagar. Failing that attempt, the D.S.P., Mr. Ghuman,  contacted the Imam of another mosque that was about one and a half kilometre from there. It is on the bridge of a canal. He tore the pages from the Koran with a blade and wrote down the names of some residents of Shanti Nagar, including the name of Raji Baba.

 Following that, he announced that the people of Shantinagar had defiled the Koran?  Those persons were arrested within thirty minutes of the registration of the report with the police station. Jodat International in its editorial of March 1997 blamed the police for their demonic plan. That was the night when Muslims prayed to God for blessing. The mosques were illuminated with lights and people read the Koran the whole night.

 That night, at about eleven,  thousands of devotees in Khanewal left their prayers and reading of the Koran to attack Christian institutions. The next day in the morning, about fifty thousand people attacked Shantinagar, a neighbouring village Tiba, and the city of Khanewal.  They destroyed about one thousand houses and reduced thirteen churches to ashes. The Mirror of March 1997 from Lahore reported that "Three policemen, Mohammed Sadiq, Noor Nabi and Rana Ramzan, were suspended, arrested, and then reinstated in their jobs. Thus they developed an animosity against the Christians who registered the case.

 "On 3 February 1997, on Pakistan's general election day, policeman Rana Ramzan was posted in Shanti Nagar as a security officer." He was the same officer who was alleged to have kicked the Bible at the house of Baba Raji. Moreover, the attack started from Khanewal, which is a centre for the activities of the militants. Moreover, "Harkat-ul-Insar, an orthodox Muslim militant group, launched a campaign to collect alms for Kashmiris. They received a lukewarm response to their campaign from people of Khanewal. The campaign ended on Kashmir Day on 5 February 1997..." The attack started in the late night of the same day. The only motive for that attack was revenge and to spread a wave of terror.

  When the subcontinent of India was divided there were riots between Hindus and Muslims because of the partition. The Muslims from India were driven to Pakistan and killed because the Muslims in Pakistan were treating the Hindus violently. That was a drama of revenge and counter revenge. The main issue was that Muslims formed a separate race from the Hindus and therefore they deserved a separate land to live. That was the cause of the whole trouble at that time. Christians did not ask for a separate homeland. There was no division and no sense for revenge. Christians were not participants in the drama of killing. Then why Shantinagar and other places were attacked?

 If that attack was for the torn pages from the Koran, then it became the duty of the state to find out who was guilty of that vandalism.  The 27th day of Ramzan is significant for the Muslims of Pakistan. According to the English calendar it is the 6th of February. On that day, Pakistan came into existence. It is also a special day because of Ramzon. On that day, Muslims seek blessing from God by praying the whole night,  reading the Koran.

That day would be remembered in the history as the black day because of that plot hatched against the Christians of Pakistan. To deepen the wounds of a minority, the high ranking political leaders ignored the disaster. Whenever there was even an ordinary incident, the president of the nation either visited the place or expressed his condolence. But it did not happen when the tragedy took place in Shantinagar. The complete silence of the president of the nation had created a dilemma for the Christians of Pakistan. Christian publications from Pakistan also asked if any citizen ever heard such a tragedy happening against Muslims in a country where Christians are in majority?  When the Barbari Masjid was demolished in India, Muslims took revenge on churches in Pakistan. Were those churches not the places to worship God? Were they less than mosques? The press, which was in the hands of Muslim, was not openly sympathetic either.  A question among Christians of Pakistan arose if Islam allowed announcements to be made for universal brotherhood without supporting it with actions, and if  God was not in a position to defend Himself, His people and His religion?  Did he need half-educated fanatics  for His defence.

  One could understand the action if Muslims had professed that the God of churches and of the mosques was not the same. The action demonstrated that in the eyes of the Muslims of Pakistan or at least fanatics, the God of Christians was different from the Gods of Muslims. This is not the first time when the police had acted as the guardian of Islam and not the citizens. It is also not the first time when a mob took the law in their own hands. Among them, there is the incident of the gang rape of eight Christian girls on the 6th of May of the year 2000. The police cooperated with the criminals. When the criminals were arrested, there were demonstrations that if they are sentenced, the families of those victims would be killed.

 Another is that of Salamat Masih who was sentenced to death for writing something in a mosque against the prophet Mohammed. Salamat Masih was only fourteen years old and did not know how to read and write. Thousands of zealots demonstrated outside the court to intimidate the judges. They killed Manzoor Masih, his co-defendant, when he was on bail. Salamat Masih had to seek asylum abroad is spite of his honourable acquittal by court. Such demonstrations were  held several times against the fabrications of defilement of the Koran.The incident of ShantinNagar was not the first one. Nor it would be the last either. These incidents will continue happening till the blasphemy laws are not repelled, and the separate electorate system is not changed into the joint electorate system.

 The separate electorate system is the hammer that frames theocratization of Pakistan. It is a key that opens doors for a religious apartheid to reduce non-Muslims to the status of second-class citizens. The separate electorate system is a device that denies the rights of non-Muslims to participate in the business of the nation. The separate electorate system is a weapon to use against the religious minorities to keep them at the mercy of the citizens who participate in the business of the state and those citizens are only Muslims.Under these soul-destroying climates there cannot be peace, unity, loyalty to the nation and economic prosperity.

  No matter what the founders have said and dreamt, religion was the root of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan that came into existence because of the persecution of Muslims by the Hindus.   In the undivided India, financial, political and educational powers were with the Hindus who formed the majority.  Muslims demanded their own land where they could live without persecutions.    Millions of people were killed at the time of division. Women were raped and abducted and children were slaughtered on both sides of the border in the name of religion.

In the early stages, Christians, about 3 percent, were not treated badly in Pakistan, because the sufferings of Muslims at the hands of Hindus were still fresh. Muslims thought their real foes were Hindus. So Christianswere just tolerated. Several Christians in military and elsewhere attained high positions.  Yet, the demand for repressive laws for minorities was there from the beginning. The rulers did not pay much attention to these demands for several reasons. They were occupied with the nation-building activities. Moreover, the early politicians were educated in the Colonial era, mostly abroad, and therefore did not think much through the glasses of religion. When problems began to torment the nation, the rulers found hope in legislating repressive laws to divert the attention of the majority and to please religious parties.

 The situation for Christians deteriorated when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to power. He nationalized the Christian institutions, and changed holidays from Sundays to Fridays. In September 1972, Christians held a demonstration in Rawalpindi against the decision of the government   to take over their schools, colleges and hospitals. Two Christians, James and Nawaz, were killed by the police. The nationalization of the schools in 1972 resulted in the loss of more than five thousand jobs for Christians because they were given to Muslims.  Because of this, thousands of dependents were deprived of their livelihood. These institutions were the centres for learning, social and cultural gatherings and spiritual development because of the presence of   Christian teachers, professors, and students.  After their nationalization, these institutions became the dens of automatic weapons and training centres for terrorism.

 Pakistan, the new land of Muslims, means a land of pure.  Only the name, a land of pure, was not sufficient for Muslim religious parties. Right from the earlier days of Pakistan, religious parties urged to implement   Islamic    laws to achieve their brand of peace in Pakistan. The process to achieve their brand of peace was gradual and steady. The process reached its culmination when Zia-ul-Haq, an orthodox Muslim from India, took the power   through a military coup in 1977.  He took several steps, including two major steps that have changed the geography of thinking, the landscape of culture, ways to attain peace, and the view of purity in Pakistan.

 Zia-ul-Haq   introduced a separate electorate in 1979 that divided Pakistan between Muslims and non-Muslims for election purpose. Election began to be held on the basis of religion. Under this system, Christian parliamentarians could not participate in the business of the state. They were not able to provide leadership to their community. They failed to present even a single bill in the parliament for the rights of minorities. Christians were cut off from the social and political life of the nation. The separate election system violated basic human rights of minorities, and promoted fanaticism actively. 

  That was not enough for Zia-ul-Haq and religious parties to bring purity to their   land of pure.  In addition to separate electoral system, Zia   imposed   blasphemy laws undemocratically to please Muslim clergy, please himself, and also to please some foreign powers to receive more money.  Zia-ul-Haq did not stop his march towards purity even after imposing a separate electorate, the blasphemy laws and other measures to terrorize minorities.   He began to finance Jehad and religious schools, called madrassas, to produce fanatics.   The graduates of these schools made the life of minorities more miserable.  According to the Associated Press of July 30, 2002, there is more than just Islamic militancy to worry about from the thousands of religious schools operating in Pakistan. There are around 1.5 million graduates, who have no other qualifications except to be clerics, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit research group based in Brussels, Belgium.  Their constrained world view, lack of modern civic education and poverty make them a destabilizing society. They are also susceptible to romantic notions of sectarian and international jihads with a promise of instant salvation.  Some of the larger religious schools are actively pursuing foreign students, and are receiving most of their funding from countries, including Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq and Kuwait, raising concerns that some of the funding may have terrorist

About Stephen Gill:

Stephen Gill, a multiple award winning Indo/Canadian self-exiled poet, fiction-writer and essayist, has authored more than thirty books. He is the subject of doctoral dissertations, and research papers. Thirteen  books of critical studies have been released by book publishers on his works and more are on the way. His poetry and prose have appeared in nearly one thousand publications. The focus of his writing is love and peace.

 

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