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Rawalpindi aftermath: Sectarian violence

Updated November 19, 2013

THE sectarian clash that occurred in Rawalpindi on Friday as an Ashura procession was being taken out is having dangerous repercussions across the country, as violence has refused to subside. Deaths were reported on Monday in a communal clash in Kohat and the army had to be called in to control the situation. And while curfew was lifted in Rawalpindi, the city remained tense, with troops still patrolling, especially in the old city. In Multan and Bahawalnagar, which saw violence on Saturday, the situation was improving. Meanwhile, Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah’s comments in which he appeared to some groups to be apportioning blame for the Rawalpindi riots are a classic example of poor judgement shown by state functionaries at a delicate time. Considering the sensitivity of the matter, specifically in Punjab, the minister should not have made the impolitic remarks he did, especially when the Lahore High Court has formed a one-man commission to investigate the violence.

At this point, all parties need to proceed with great caution to prevent the disturbances from degenerating into a wider communal conflict. Friday’s clash, reportedly sparked by an inflammatory sermon, shows the need for the state to clamp down on hate speech without discrimination. For this, the use of microphones in mosques and other places of worship to rouse people’s religious feelings must be strictly monitored. True, the major ulema of different sects have preached restraint in the aftermath of the Rawalpindi episode; but the real power to incite worshippers lies in the hands of the neighbourhood mosque’s prayer leader. It is his sermons that can set the direction for the worshippers — restraint in the case of provocation or condemnation of different sects and religions can mean the difference between life and death. Such vigilance must be year-round, and enhanced during sensitive periods.

The unfortunate events of the last few days are indicative of the level of polarisation in society on religious and sectarian grounds. The divide has begun to cut through class lines as well, with seemingly ‘educated’ people condoning violence in the name of faith. Religious and community leaders need to work overtime to defuse communal tension, and the state, while aiding such efforts, must improve its conflict-management capabilities. True, security preparations overall were commendable during Ashura, but Rawalpindi proved the exception, the tension spilling into other cities. The LHC commission must be allowed to freely investigate the matter and deliver timely results to the public in the interests of justice and communal harmony.