For whom the bell tolls

The 16th day of April in 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.

Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have a few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-Fi communications, I hope you will like them.

During land allotments, the area around Khanewal was developed into many villages in a grid pattern. Home to a very diverse population that ranges from Bugtis to Niazis, these villages have aged along with the welfare lands allotted to soldiers and the ginning factories of Sardar Sobha Singh, the father of Khushwant Singh.

Chak 72/10-R is one of these settlements. The village was founded by William Youth Tucker, a Salvation Army officer who bought a huge piece of land and distributed it amongst a few Christian families. Today, thousands of Christians dwell here and reciprocate the providence of the earth with respect.

The village rose to prominence because of an incident that actually happened on 5th Feb 1997, but can be traced back to the 17th day of January, in the same year. A search operation by the police was being conducted in a Christian household on the charges of gambling. When a locked cabinet was forced open, a Bible dropped to the floor and no one tried to pick it up. As the house owner moved to pick it up, the police stopped him and the ensuing scuffle caused further desecration. The police locked up the suspect. In the evening, local notables went to the police station to meet the accused. Amongst other things, the hostile behavior of the police moved them to register a case of 295-C, this time against officials that conducted the raid.

The followup team that went to Chak 72/10-R for further investigation also found similar facts but no one was willing to file the suit. The next day, the Christians took to the streets and the city administration succumbed to the protests. A case was registered but only after the officials had secured their bail. Now, the pressure came onto the Christians community to drop the charges but they refused. The issue started building up and from high tones it graduated to one of threats and warning of dire consequences.

Roughly a mile from Chak 72/10-R, a mosque stood alongside the canal. It was a one-room structure where travelers could stop over and offer prayers. On the eve of 5th February 1997, a resident of another village came in for Isha prayers and saw a few torn papers of Arabic text. These were the burnt pages of the Quran and had disrespectful remarks written about Prophet Muhammad. On another page, a name and detailed address was also written. Strangely, it was the same house, where the police had raided in January, earlier that year. Within an hour, a case of section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code was registered. After a while, the details of the incident were broadcast from loudspeakers of the Peeplan wali mosque. One after the other, all mosques started requesting Muslims to come out to rescue of Islam. The loudspeakers accused all Christians of blasphemy and demanded stern actions via jihad.

Sensing the situation, Father Theodore Darshan went to see the Deputy Commissioner but could only access Additional Deputy Commissioner. As the government officials assured him of safety, the second biggest religious violence incident of Khanewal had already begun. Churches were the first on the list. Panicked pastors tried calling officials but either they did not reply back or their reply was not reassuring enough. That night, someone tried to kill Kalim Dil, the main witness in the January case.

The next day was a dark one for Khanewal. Despite the police guard, the St. Joseph Church was attacked. The mob was equipped with sticks, rods, hockey sticks and axes. They broke the windows and took out the furniture, carpets, and books to burn it all. The attackers did not notice that alongside the Bible, the pages which praised the Lord were also burnt. Those who smashed the statue of Mary did not realise, that the Quran declared her the best amongst all women. Those who broke the cross chose to forget that believing in the man on the cross was actually a part of their own faith. The Salvation Army Church, the Catholic Church, dispensaries, missionary schools, pastors’ residences and Christians shops; it seemed that nothing with the cross was to be spared in Khanwal.

On the other side, men had started gathering outside the fateful mosque on morning of 6th February 1997. After a while, a group met with village locals and informed them about the buildup outside the village. They suggested that it was better if the Christians vacated the village and deposited their weapons to ensure peace. The residents refused to vacate but assured that they would not instigate the protesters.

Around nine in the morning, the mob entered the village. Despite being blinded by rage, they were meticulous enough to cut the telephone and power supply before proceeding with the loot. While one group pulled down signs of their faith, another herded their cattle away. The most dangerous, however, was another group which set the orchards on fire, hurled bombs into houses and destroyed the fields. Burnt passbooks, destroyed pension receipts, blackened school buildings were all that was left of the aspirations and associations of the village. When this mob left, it was almost 12.

When the military reached the place, ash had enveloped the village. In these three hours, every item of every household, including its hope and trust, had burnt to ashes. The attackers left behind houses with charred walls stared up at the skies; and the fire had only died because there remained nothing to be burnt. Water was largely unavailable as the tube-well ran on electricity and those who had come to rescue the faith had taken away the tractors. For many days, people spent the nights battling with the weather in rags that they had worn that ill-fated day, since fire had taken the clothes, and even bedding.

Though both the communal riots took place in Ramazan, the difference between this violence and the one during partition was that in 1947, people had the choice of going to another land.

Ironically, the actual name of Chak 72/10-R was Shanti Nagar, which means ...

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