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Saturday, 8 August 2009

A true story from Gojra

Nosheen Abbas

Wide eyed, and alert, Javed and Irfaan, two brothers, step in to the house. They sit close to each other, almost in a huddle. Both look slightly anxious not knowing what to expect from our conversation, but as it progresses, they seem more at ease.

‘Two of my cousins and my aunt were burnt alive in the Gojra incident,’ Javed states, stressing on each word holding my gaze. Javed does most of the talking while 19-year-old Irfaan sits quietly staring and occasionally, faintly, repeating his brother’s last word. His cousins who were murdered were Honey who was in 8th grade and Saji, who was a little younger. Memories of them are as far away as seven to eight years, but they become ebullient as they reminisce about their horse play. ‘We used to play hide and seek...in the mountains, not like the ones here...we used to play that a lot,’ and they’re both smiling.

Javed oscillates between narrating the incident as he would to an investigator, standing on an emotional brink. Suddenly avoiding eye contact and looking into space, moist eyed, he pauses, ‘you know, I haven’t cried in years, but I cried so much when I heard about what happened.’

The attack that took place in Gojra on the 1st of August was a premeditated attack. Warning signs were given hours in advance with some armed victims keeping the attackers at bay for a few hours. All this time, the district police officer (DPO) opted to remain a silent spectator to the brutal killing and the police refused to step in. The mild admonition of the DPO entailed a transfer of his post. Given the grave outcome of the attack the state should have prosecuted the law enforcers who were supposed to adopt a strong stance against organised terrorism and against anyone who supports it, especially those who don’t prevent it from happening.

The incident at Gojra where seven Christian children women and men were burnt alive on the pretext of ‘blasphemy’ allegedly on the instigation of the banned Sipah-i-Sahaba is not an isolated incident. Minorities have been victims of many similar attacks in the past as well. Without a modicum of respite just a day after the Gojra incident, there was another vicious display of fanaticism in Sheikhupura when a factory owner was burnt alive. Incidents similar to these picked up pace after the blasphemy law was amended by the dictator, Ziaul Haq, creating a draconian version. It seems as if the only use of this amended law was for the purpose of misuse.

Isn’t it ironic that before Zia’s rule Pakistan had seldom witnessed such violent incidents. Majority of the Muslim countries, except for a few, don’t have blasphemy laws and no parallels can be found to the heinous incidents of murdering minorities in any part of the world as is in Pakistan. Since Zia’s politicisation of Islam, which corrupted the largely religiously-tolerant population, the state’s paucity of showing zero tolerance for raw crime has left the doors ajar for organised terrorism to flourish in Pakistan.

It wasn’t too long ago when Syed Mohammad Javed, the former commissioner of Malakand division, was openly siding and showing respect to Fazlullah and Sufi Mohammad – the very men whose militants carried out massacre and beheaded innocent civilians as well as personnel from the security forces. He even offered prayers behind Maulana Fazullah but the federal and provincial governments said nothing. It’s absolutely mind boggling to see the stark contradiction and oxymoronic actions of the government towards crimes and what has progressively become free organised terrorism.

In a country where Muslims account for more than 90 per cent of the population one wonders why there is even a need for a blasphemy law. J. Salik, the former federal minister and activist for minority rights, says there are reasons beyond religion that has given way to this law. ‘The main issue of minorities is land,’ he says. Attacks have predominantly been caused to grab land. And the tactic to manipulate the minorities oft their lands has been on the basis of false allegations, laws and rumours of blasphemy.

‘I conducted a comparative study and found out that 99 per cent blasphemy cases were based on false allegations due to personal feuds, trumped and false charges,’ says former law minister and current head of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Iqbal Haider.

But violence against minorities runs deeper than that, stemming from the fundamental attitude emanating from the majority, of distrust, disapproval and hatred based on religious differences which was truly ignited during Zia’s rule. The sense of who we are as a nation since then has been defined more by religious affiliations than by nationalistic association, and this has divided the country into even smaller bits, leading men to commit inhumane crimes that run against the very teachings of a religion which they claim to ardently follow — a religion that has been reduced to hollow rituals, igniting hate among people of different religions as well as among Muslims.

The day after the Gojra incident, a group of people gathered on a green belt outside the National Press Club in Islamabad. As one got closer one could hear a faint sound of hymns. The group was led by a woman with a child leaning against a tree. Those present sat in heavy silence and those who spoke did so just to give information as to why they were there. There was a substantial turn up from the Christian community, but unfortunately no Muslims were to be seen. That said a lot.

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