KHANEWAL: It's a day of thanksgiving in Shanti Nagar, a village 10km southeast of Khanewal city. It’s a day of celebration, not one of sorrow or anger. February 6, 2017, marks the 20th anniversary of one of the worst acts of spontaneous violence against Christians in the country.
According to a fact-finding report compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the violence “is reminiscent of the 1947 communal riots”.
This village, and the neighbouring Tibba, were burned to the ground by a frenzied mob, estimated conservatively at 30,000, on Feb 6, 1997.
The village square is eerily quiet this morning. It’s a working day and a towering monument — a glittering brick and marble cross, almost 20ft tall — casts its long shadow over the whitewashed houses and paved streets. The villagers, mostly women, children and the elderly, are gathered at the Salvation Army Church for the commemoration.
“We saw smoke rise from Tibba at around 6am and knew our village was next,” says Sharifan Bibi, an elderly lady.
Women had been put in charge of safeguarding the children that day. It was a cold foggy February morning and the smaller children wailed at the top of their lungs while their mothers herded them towards the fields. “We had to place our hands on the children’s mouths to stifle their screaming. Otherwise the mob would have come for us,” explains Sana Bibi.
Two women went into labour at that time — one of them was carried into the fields to give birth and the other into a cattle-shed.
One of the newborns was named Phool Dildar, the other Saneha (calamity).
The community leaders delivered fiery speeches at the commemoration service. They all narrated the events that ended with churches being burnt in three villages and at Civil Lines, in Khanewal city.
They also explain why it is so important to narrate this history and learn it by heart. “This is not for those who have experienced this. It’s for the benefit of those who are under 19 years of age… don’t think we’re only beating an old drum. You need to know the history of your village.”
The total number of churches burned in Shanti Nagar alone — 13; number of schools and colleges burned — 3; the number of houses burned — 775; and shops burned down in Civil Lines, Khanewal — 10.
The HRCP’s fact-finding commission, which visited the village on Feb 10, 1997, noted that this was the worst case of violence against a religious minority group after the anti-Ahmadi riots of 1989 in Chak Sikandar.
Nazir James, 61, a recently-elected general councillor of Shanti Nagar, remembers the turn of events that led to mob violence. “It began with Baba Raji — an elderly man who ran a local moonshine and gambling den here.”
Police raided his house and while turning the house upside down in search of evidence, threw a copy of the Bible on the ground. James claims that he was there when the incident happened. “I don’t think the police realised that they had thrown down a Bible.”
When elders of the village gathered at the police station that evening, Baba Raji told them the policemen had desecrated the Bible and should therefore be charged under the Blasphemy Law. It was a delicate time to bring this up — general elections were scheduled for Jan 17 and if the elders had forced reconciliation, the Christian majority villages would have refused to vote for them. Tariq C. Qaiser and Peter John Sahotra were contesting the election for a National Assembly seat and a close competition was expected.
The elders told DSP Habib Ghumman that they would negotiate a settlement on the day after the election — Jan 18. In the following week, an opposing political group would urge police to put pressure on the Christians refusing to forgive the policemen.
It was getting dark on Feb 5, 1997. For Muslims, it was the 27th night of Ramazan and the faithful had gathered in mosques and madressahs in Khanewal for a night of prayer.
News travelled that someone had torn up pages of the Quran and within no time, the report had travelled through mosques and loudspeakers throughout the area. There are eight Christian-majority villages near Khanewal and the plan was to teach all of them a lesson. The DCO and the ADC assured the residents of Shanti Nagar and Tibba that everything was under control and that they were sending police (nearly 400 cops) to handle the situation.
Instead, Tibba and Shanti Nagar burned. Chaks 81 and 82 – 10R were next, but the local cleric told the mob to leave the Christians’ homes alone and burn the church. They did. “For a long time, we did not want anything to do with our Muslim neighbours,” James recalls.
Many land dealings with Muslims were put on hold. There was a Muslim who ran a small general store in Shanti Nagar and the villagers boycotted his shop. After pinching and scraping for six months, one day he asked the villagers to tell him at last what he had done to deserve such treatment. “Our community leaders told us to change our attitude towards them.”
For many people Shanti Nagar represents a small dot in a history of violence that plagues minorities. But it also became a hotspot for community work as the villages had to be rehabilitated. Philanthropists and other people from the world over came together to help the government rebuild.
Today, elders recall how this shone the spotlight on Shanti Nagar. Their message to the younger generation: don’t forget the resistance shown by your elders.
Published in Dawn February 7th, 2017