Detoxifying the body politic

Published April 5, 2016
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

THE operation against militants in Punjab was long overdue. Both sceptics and believers of state policies had been watching out for it, locked in a ‘will it/won’t it/when will it’ debate. It’s kind of like the monitoring of Voyager 1 to see whether a manmade device could exit the heliosphere, the boundary separating the solar system from the rest of the galaxy. That occurred in the same year as Pakistan’s first democratic transition, which for some seemed equally improbable.

But the Punjab operation is about mining underground structures, not flying off into outer space. Blasting our way to the coal seam will not work even if the mine’s structure is kept secured. Toxic gases remain a hazard. Miners kept canaries in cages as an early warning system because poisonous fumes kill birds before people. Like canaries, religious minorities are vulnerable and have low immunity to toxicity in society.

Christians, the largest religious minority in Punjab, face three tiers of persecution — terrorist attacks by militants, lynchings by common people, and abandonment by the state. Terrorists have targeted Muslims far more than they have non-Muslims. But the lynching of minorities taps into a vein that army operations cannot address. Mobs have attacked and destroyed Christian settlements in Lahore, Toba Tek Singh, Gujranwala and Nankana Sahib. In Kasur, a couple was burnt alive less than two years ago. All incidents were triggered by allegations of blasphemy, and all were in central Punjab and not south Punjab, the apparent hub of radicalism.

Reams have been written on the state’s role. The radicalism cultivated during the 1980s; the Afghan jihad; patronage of sectarian groups and madressahs; re-promulgation of the blasphemy law during Zia’s regime; the Federal Shariat Court ordering compulsory execution for blasphemy, which triggered a deluge of allegations. But does the law’s existence sufficiently explain lynching and rioting? Is it a simple linear connection that the law spurs vigilantism? Or does the state’s inaction reflect a deeper problem?


Christians, the largest religious minority in Punjab, face persecution at three levels.


The first terrorist attack in Pakistan after 9/11 was on a Protestant church in Bahawalpur that left 16 dead. The following year, there were five terrorist attacks on Christians. But mob attacks predate that — in Shantinagar and Khanewal where almost 20 years ago, over 2,000 Christians were displaced by mobs who burned churches and destroyed homes. Blasphemy persecutions also predate 9/11. Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad committed suicide in protest in 1998. The right-wing consensus seems to be that while blasphemy against the sacred doesn’t affect the sacred, it hurts people’s sentiments, and that emotional distress must be punished and equilibrium restored with blood.

We know blasphemy allegations are often a way of settling material conflicts such as property or business, and that people’s religious sentiments are exploited to create a frenzy. But what allows people to be provoked into barbarism? Fervent mobs declare Christians are agents or representatives of the Christian West. When did local Christians become such a proxy? Historically, they were not a conduit for revenge against the Christian colonisers of the Raj. In fact, accounts show that during the Partition violence, Christians marked their homes with crosses and were left alone by rioters. Even in the context of politically nurtured intolerance, what positioned them as ‘the other’?

I don’t claim to understand Punjab. But part of the problem could lie in the nature of Christian settlements. Initially, missionaries helped them establish segregated villages and settle as tenant farmers and labourers in new canal colonies. They got their own land in the model of the English parish and this kept them away from the stigma of the ‘chuhra’ past (where identity was turned into a slur), but it also distanced them from local politics and from connecting daily with the mainstream. This separatism plays out in other contexts of multiculturalism vs assimilation, or in conflicts amongst communities living on ethnic grids.

Or maybe it has to do with Punjab’s forceful centralisation of religion. To accept the logic of Pakistan, Punjab had to compromise its other identity anchors because religion was the only thing that marked a distinction from Hindu and Sikh Punjabis. Language, affinity, music, culture, rituals — all had to be secondary. For Partition to make sense, religion and the willingness to fight for it had to matter above everything else; a threat to faith was for many an existential threat. No other province had to rethink its ethnic heritage to accept Pakistan, and could maintain multiple identities.

It could also be the transmitted memory of the violence of Partition. The burning of villages and sacred spaces, killing and maiming, atrocities against the unarmed, perpetrator lurking inside each stranger — each being both victim and aggressor. No other province experienced with such intensity the horrors of Partition.

The impulse to victimise before one is victimised has subsequently been ‘validated’ by history textbooks and official narratives, by markers of nationalism, by foreign policy, by being goaded to militarise and by ‘Darul Harb’ interpretations of religion.

Recent literature on Indigenous Australians establishes an intra-generational passing on of trauma, a ‘blood memory’ that leads to destructive behaviour, anger and violence. The point is not to excuse perpetrators as victims. Instead, I am wondering what we should do with the ghosts of 1947.

Psychologists tell us mob behaviour is shaped by the loss of individual responsibility and a sense of belonging heightened by group endorsement of such behaviour. But violent riots here dissipate within hours and don’t go on for weeks as in India eg Meerut in the 1980s, Mumbai in the 1990s, Gujarat in the 2000s.

The main reason is that unlike in India, political parties and groups here are apparently not involved. Associated individuals may belong to certain parties, but it has not been organised political action or discourse. So far. But after the events of last week, when religio-political groups banded together on blasphemy — the very issue that has triggered violent riots — and were able to shut down Islamabad, and get assurances from the government while defending vigilantism, political mobilisation during riots has become an alarming possibility. And not only in Punjab.

The government’s compensation to victims matters only when it’s a part of reparations, a wider form of social repair. In this case that means arraying society-wide sensors for detecting and purifying the below-surface toxic fumes.

Meanwhile, Voyager 1’s power source is weakening, will soon stop transmitting power signals, and will have no other mission but to exist — perhaps in hopeful contrast to Pakistan’s democratic government.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

nazishbrohi.nb@gmail.com

Twitter: @Nazish_Brohi

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2016

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