Attacks on Shantinagar and Khanewal (divided in four parts): RAMIFICATIONS OF PAKISTAN BLASPHEMY LAWS. By Dr. Stephen Gill


 NOTE: Attacks on Shantinagar, Khanewal and the surrounding areas on the 5th and the 6th of February of 1997 were the direct consequences of Pakistan blasphemy laws.  The destruction that was caused in Shantinagar by these wrong laws reminds one the destruction caused in 1947 when India was divided. Bishop John Joseph, who gave his life to repel these laws, was right when he says: "Ironically, it is the mistake of law, which happens to be the first cause behind such incidents.” The article was written about twelve years ago. Surprisingly, it is still relevant.

 part one:

 The members of parliament in Pakistan are not interested in religious minorities because under the present system of election they do not represent constituencies as they represent in the West and even in Pakistan's neighbour, India. The members of parliament represent their religious groups and therefore they are more loyal to the religion they represent, not to the country. There is no punishment for the abusers of the blasphemy laws, and the alleged culprits face only one punishment-- death. Because these systems have opened doors widely for the followers of the religion which is in majority to abuse the blasphemy laws, they have appeased their business jealousies and settled their personal scores in the past and it is continuing even now against minorities who have no right to vote for the candidate they want.

The attacks on Shantinagar, Khanewal and on the surrounding areas on the 5th and the 6th of February of 1997 were the direct consequences of these blasphemy laws and the separate electorate system. The destruction that was caused in Shantinagar by these wrong laws reminds one the destruction caused in 1947 when India was divided. Bishop John Joseph, who gave his life to repel these laws, was right when he says: 

 "Ironically, it is the mistake of law, which happens to be the first cause behind such incidents. Ever since this law came into existence, during the dictatorial regime of President Zia-ul-Haq in 1986, there has been growing intolerance in the country. These laws are being used to settle personal scores and fan religious tensions. The non-Muslim citizens are easily and comfortably labeled with such accusations. The   attitude of the ordinary citizens is such that it is taken for granted that non-Muslims must have committed such offenses."1    

 Shantinagar, called Chak 72/10-R, was established in 1916, and received electric power in 1953.  The village is a stronghold of the Salvation Army. Before 1972, its residents were tenants. After the land reform in 1972, its residents became owners of their land.  The present population consists of twenty-five to thirty thousand peaceful citizens.  Half of the population is literate. Most people are agriculturalists or farmers. Some worked as teachers and office clerks. Nearly every third house had a tractor, a car, motorcycle, modern equipment for farming and other necessities of life. They kept cows and buffaloes for milk and butter. The village had twenty-five thousand acres of agricultural land. Most of the work was farming.  With hard work and dedication, the Christians of this village had prospered. 

 The Christians were so considerate here that they had built a mosque for their Muslim residents. Christians and Muslims both celebrated the occasion when the foundation of this mosque was laid.  Muslims and Christians in Shantinagar live in harmony even now. 

After the attack on Shantinagar by zealots, the nerves of the cordial relationship between the Christians and the Muslims of this village were not damaged.  Whatever ration the Christians received from the relief agencies after the attack, they shared with their around fifteen Muslim families. They also had good relations with most Muslim villages around.

 Shanti Nagar is about 10 km to the south of the city of Khanewal which is in the Division of Multan. Shantinagar means an abode of peace. This abode was stormed by fifty to sixty thousand zealots on the 6th of February 1997. The storm started from Khanewal, which is a stronghold of the militants. The 6th of February of 1997 will be remembered among the black days in the history of Pakistan, because of the storm that caused havoc when the country was preparing for the celebrations of its golden anniversary. The storm gulfed the area on the day of Ramzan  when Muslims ask God for forgiveness and give alms to the poor.  On that holy day, the stormtroopers raised slogans to "kill the Christians because they are blasphemers toward the Holy Quaran and Holy Prophet."2 

 The attack started on the night of the 5th of February from Khanewal, although it had a link with an incident that took place about three weeks before. On the 17th of January 1997 in Shantinagar, police went to the house of Raj Pal, also called Baba Raji, suspecting that some people gamble and prepared liquor at his house. When the police did not find anything, they broke open a locked box in his house and threw its contents on the floor.  

During investigation, a copy of the Bible that was respectfully wrapped with a piece of cloth fell on the floor. When Baba Raji tried to pick up the Bible, a police officer kicked it, throwing the copy away. They took Baba Raji to the police station, although they did not find anything illegal in his house.

In the evening, some prominent residents, including Dr. Mushtaque, Mr. Samuel Jacob and Mr. Nathaniel, went to the police station when they heard about the unreasonable arrest of Baba Raji.  At that time, the police were negotiating with Baba for a bribe of fifteen thousand rupees for his release. When Baba Raji told the people of his village that the police officers had kicked the Bible during the investigation, they  became more angry and asked the police to register a case against those officers under 295-C of Pakistan Penal Code.

 S.H.O. Aziz-ul- Rehman Dogra sent a team to the village to find the facts. The team confirmed the complaint of the Christians about defilement of the Bible. Yet, the police refused to register  the case. The Christians held a meeting in which it was decided to hold a public demonstration against  the behavior of the police. Around twenty thousand Christians from Khanewal, Shantinagar and other villages passed through the main town of Khanewal starting at 10:00 in the morning. They met the Deputy Commissioner. The Deputy Commissioner expressed his sorrow, assuring the demonstrators that a case would be registered, the culprits would be suspended and the matter would be taken to court under the law of the country.

 As a result, the administration did register the case. The police officers had their bail in advance. Later, the police asked the Christians to take the report back and settle the matter amicably. The officer in charge at that time was Superintendent of Police Habib Allah Ghuman. When the residents of Shantinagar did not accept the condition, the Superintendent of Police, Habib Allah Ghuman, forced them to settle the matter out of court. The villagers replied that the matter was in court and they would wait for the outcome.  This infuriated Mr. Ghuman. He threatened that he would see them in such a way that at least for fifty years they would not be able to stand on their own feet.

The Mirror of March 1997 from Lahore reported that "Three policemen, Mohammed Sadiq, Noor Nabi and Rana Ramzan, were suspended and arrested when the Christians pressed their charges against them for defiling the Bible. Shortly, they were reinstated. Moreover, "On 3 February 1997, on Pakistan's general election day, policeman Rana Ramzan was posted in Shantinagar as a security officer."3  Rana Ramzan was the same officer who was alleged to have defiled the Bible at the house of Baba Raji on the 17th of January. The Christians took it as insult because the authorities did not honor their promise that was to suspend the police officers who were involved with the case about the Bible.

The assurance of the Deputy Commissioner that he would take action against the police officers remained confined to the files, because the same police officers were seen performing their duties as usual. Higher authorities were informed again without any concrete result. This indifference of the police angered the Christians even more.

The police officers also developed an animosity against the Christians because of their complaints.  To take revenge, police hatched a plot that led to the attack on Shantinagar. The story about the attack appeared in The Mirror in the March 1997 issue also. About two kilometers from Shantinagar, there was a small abandoned mosque without light and where hardly anyone went for prayer. This mosque was used to provoke the Muslims to attack Christians. On the 5th of February, at seven forty-five in the evening, Mohammad Shafi reportedly went to offer prayers in that mosque and found around some torn pages from the Koran. He called some persons to witness his claim that something sacrilegious about the Prophet Mohammed was written on those torn pages.

This was supposedly done by Baba Raji (60), because his name and address, along with the names and addresses of a few more, were written on the loose pages. Those alleged culprits did not know how to read and write.  Baba Raji was the one who had complained and pressed for the charges to be registered against the police officers involved in desecrating the Bible in his home on the 17th of January. On the torn pages, a clear challenge was written to provoke the Muslims to do whatever was possible.

 At 8.30 p.m., Mohammad Shafi, the man who found the torn pages, went to the Sadar police station in Khanewal and lodged Fir (First Information Report) No 55/97 under section 295-B & C of the Pakistan Penal Code. Under the Penal Code 295-C the only punishment is death, nothing else.

For about half an hour after that, loudspeakers from mosques in the Khanewal city and from mosques in the nearby villages, accused the Christians of Shantinagar of defiling a copy of the Holy Koran. They asked the faithful Muslims to get together to take revenge and proceed for Jehad against Christians. The Muslims of Khanewal and of the surrounding areas began to congregate, burning the tires and raising slogans against Christians.

  In towns such as Kabir Wala, Piro Wal, Katcha Khua, Kot Sajan Singh, and in Mian Chunnun demonstration were held and roads were blocked. In Katcha Kua the demonstration was so fierce that the main G.T. Road was blocked and the traffic remained jammed for hours. The railway line was also blocked.

 For those pages from the Koran and sacrilegious writing on those pages, police arrested three Christians, named Sardar Piru (65), Chaman Barkat (60), and Beshir  Barkat (45) from Shantinagar.  The police kept them in an unknown place.   They were arrested within thirty minutes of the registration of the case at the police station. The Christian leaders began to doubt that the police would torture them to get them to sign whatever they wanted. (Continued in Part 2)

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