TWO policemen stand guard over the charred remains of Boota’s house in a narrow alley of Arafat Colony off Racecourse Road in Gujranwala. They were deployed there on Monday to protect the ashes. For further security, the police have locked up the house, inside which may lie evidence against the ‘unidentified’ rioters who had set it ablaze on Sunday night. The attack was part of the anti-Ahmadi violence that broke out in the neighbourhood over an alleged blasphemous Facebook post by an 18-year-old Ahmadi boy.
Jamaat-i-Ahmadiyya leaders in Gujranwala say that the police didn’t budge when a 3,000-strong mob vandalised and burnt homes belonging to their community. “The police were there. They didn’t do anything to stop the attackers. They let them have their way. Our homes were plundered and burnt, our people abused, beaten and killed,” said Munawar Ahmed Nasir, a Jamaat leader. He described the events as the worst anti-Ahmadi attacks in the city since 1974.
“Instead of controlling the mob, the police turned back the fire brigade and ambulances,” he added.
Boota lost much more than his house and belongings in that fire; his mother and two daughters died of suffocation while his sister miscarried. “It is very sad that the woman and her granddaughters lost their lives in the attack. It [the Facebook post] wasn’t their fault; they were punished for someone else’s sin,” said one of the two policemen.
Boota’s was one of the five Ahmadi houses burnt down by the attackers who had begun gathering when the word spread that the alleged blasphemous picture had been shared by the 18-year-old suspect. Several other Ahmadi houses and their shops in the area were vandalised and looted in the attacks that began soon after Iftar.
“A police party headed by Peoples’ Colony police station in-charge Malik Asghar reached there by 9pm. Instead of controlling the attackers, who were quite small in number in the beginning, the SHO tried to placate them by offering to register a case against the suspect. His offer didn’t satisfy the bloodthirsty hounds and their number continued to swell as workers of a religious party also joined them,” alleged a young Jamaat-i-Ahmadiyya leader.
In a street, a little away from Boota’s home, a police joint investigation team (JIT) was filming another burnt house, owned by Aslam, on the main road and collecting ‘evidence’. “We cannot say anything right away. Let us complete our work,” JIT head Naeem Kausar said curtly. “So far we don’t have any evidence or a statement against anyone named in the FIR [registered by Boota against the attackers].”
All the 28 Ahmadi families living in the area have left their homes for safe places since the attack. They are not the only ones to have left their homes. Saddam Hussain, 18, who had accused his friend of having shared the blasphemous picture on Facebook, is said by his neighbours to have left for Sindh to “participate in a family wedding”. Mohammad Hakim, the Peshimam of a nearby mosque, who the Ahmadis allege incited the attacks on their homes, has returned to his village to “celebrate Eid” with his family.
“It was a very unfortunate incident. The mob was uncontrollable. The police appeared unwilling to intervene,” recalled Asghar Farooqi, a homoeopath whose clinic is just opposite Aslam’s house. “They spared my clinic only when I told that I was a Muslim and owned that property.”
In the colony’s market, a group of young men in their early 20s threatened to ‘react’ even more severely if any Muslim named by Boota in the FIR was arrested. The blasphemy suspect “abused Saddam and dared him to do whatever he could when the latter confronted him about his Facebook post. He also shot at Saddam and others from the rooftop of his cousin’s house, injuring Zakriya, the teenage son of Peshimam Hakim. What kind of treatment did they expect after that?” asked Malik Suhail.
Another man, Lateef Minhas, however, claimed that “the rioters did not belong to our neighbourhood”. “They came from outside. I did not recognise anyone of them. We, the neighbours, even rescued women and children who had shut themselves inside after their houses were set on fire,” he said as he showed his ears that got burnt during the effort.
Senior police officials are said to have reached the scene only when the situation spun out of control. “The police also brought Qari Zahid Saleem, chairman of the local peace committee. But instead of cooling down the situation, he endorsed the mob action against the Ahmadis and praised the attackers for punishing the community,” said an elderly Ahmadi leader Chaudhry Amin. “Khurram Dastgir Khan, the federal minister from the area, came at around three in the morning when our homes had been burnt, our children killed and the mob had dispersed. There’s not a single word of condemnation from Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif or any political leader from the ruling party. Perhaps they are scared of standing by the most persecuted community in the country.”
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2014