Even as one considers the possibility of a property issue being the real motive behind the recent mob attack in Lahore’s Joseph Colony, representatives of the Christian community have not ruled it out — with some saying it was indeed the driving force behind the attack that left over a hundred houses burnt beyond recognition.
President of Pakistan Minority Front’s Lahore chapter, Saleem Shakir told Dawn.com that weeks before the incident took place, “a group from the land mafia in the city’s Misri Shah market had started threatening the colony’s residents to vacate the area".
Situated close to Joseph Colony, Misri Shah is famous for being an old steel and scrap market in Lahore, similar to Shershah in Karachi, with a shanty town, for instance, the Henry and Joseph colonies, located nearby.
"The issue was to move these people so that the scrap market could be extended," said Shakir.
When asked about Imran Shahid and Sawan Masih's ‘drunken’ brawl that preceded the attack, Michael Javed, who heads the Pakistan Minority Front in Karachi, said the allegation against Sawan Masih was "used as the perfect excuse to drive residents out of the area".
"The two were friends," added Javed. "They used to chat and drink together. I know for a fact that after the brawl, there was a lot of instigation to make it seem like a religious issue."
Shakir further noted that the police cleared up the area before the mob marched in. "If the police knew there was going to be an attack, why didn't they do anything to prevent it?"
This is not the first time the Christian community has been attacked in Pakistan. In August 2009, seven Christians were burnt alive in Gojra over the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran.
In Saturday’s attack, Javed said two churches and more than a hundred bibles were also set ablaze.
And although police clashed with the arsonists and made some 25 arrests following the incident, Zohra Yusuf of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) believes those nabbed will be set free after some time, saying "the police does not investigate such matters".
The police’s role has also come into question over the events that preceded the arson where it had alerted the residents to the possibility of an attack and had advised them to leave the area.
Calling it "criminal negligence" on part of the law enforcement agencies, Yusuf, who heads the HRCP, said the incident could have been averted "had the Punjab government not tolerated militant organisations and launched a crack down on their activities".
She said those protesting on Sunday against the arson attack in Karachi and Lahore were dispersed through tear gas and baton-charge, asking "why the same tear gas was not used against the mob on Saturday?"
However, speaking to Dawn.com, Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch, Ali Dayan Hasan, said: "It is encouraging that there has actually been some movement in arresting the culprits of the Badami Bagh incident. If these individuals are held legally accountable, it will be the first tangible evidence that the state is doing something other than appeasing extremists." However, it remains to be seen whether accountability will actually take place or not, he added.
"Both the federal government and the Punjab government have apprehended those involved in similar violence in the past also, only to release them quietly once the attention shifts. Deterrence comes, above all, from accountability," he added.
In this respect, Dawn.com made several attempts to contact officials in the Punjab government who remained unavailable for comment.
What transpired on March 9 takes us back to the fundamental questions surrounding the country’s blasphemy laws and to the calls that have been made for their reformation. And although, former information minister and Pakistan People’s Party leader Sherry Rehman had proposed an amendment to the laws, she eventually withdrew her private member bill following pressure from the party machinery.
"The situation as it stands is indicative of an ethical crisis, a legal quagmire and the impotence of a corrupt, incompetent and bigoted criminal justice system. It is for the state to perform its due role as a neutral arbiter between citizens and to ensure that a rights-respecting rule of law prevails," Hasan said.
And for that purpose, the blasphemy laws need revisiting, Yusuf said, adding that if the issue is not tackled effectively, “the state may slide toward further chaos”.
The attack and the debate that has followed again redirect us to the issue of increased religious fanaticism in the country, with religious minorities questioning the protection afforded to them by the state.
"In the short term, those inciting and perpetrating violence against vulnerable groups need to be arrested and charged under relevant legal provisions to ensure that they are unable to abuse with impunity. In the long term, Pakistan needs to end legal discrimination that enables abuse against minorities and the political cowardice and myopia that facilitates it," Hasan said.
Javed said a number of Muslim clerics had condemned the attack and had been stressing the need to foster religious harmony. He, however, lamented that Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) had often been used to justify persecution of the Christian community and other vulnerable individuals and groups.
He asked: "Why is the same law not being applied on those who have torched churches and desecrated the Holy Bible?"