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The lynch mob nation

Published Mar 13, 2013 08:34am

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Azra, 68, looks at her dead pet bird in a cage at her home, which was burnt by a mob. -Reuters Photo

It is a tale of two cities. One day the intellectuals of Lahore celebrate the reopening of their famed rendezvous, the Pak Tea House. The next day, a hate-filled mob attacks a Christian neighbourhood and set on fire dozens of homes belonging to the members of the Christian community.

Last week, Lahore indeed was at its schizophrenic worst.

The gathering of poets, writers, and journalists in Lahore at the fabled Pak Tea House, which had been closed for 13 years, warmed my heart. It was indeed a sign of optimism in a city where only weeks earlier a Shia doctor and his son were shot dead by sectarian murderers. The renowned columnist and author, Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi, told scribes that the Pak Tea House was the Vatican City of Pakistan’s intelligentsia and that they had assembled to celebrate its reopening.

While the literati in Lahore were still busy celebrating the reopening of their Vatican, a mob attacked the real followers of the Vatican City in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Lahore. The Christian residents of Joseph Colony in the Badami Bagh neighbourhood of Lahore fled their homes, leaving all their belongings behind. The mob ransacked the entire neighbourhood, looted valuables, and set alight hundreds of homes. Flames consumed the dowry of a bride-to-be, life savings of a retired janitor, and diplomas of a student who was set to appear in an exam. This was all done in the name of protecting the honour of the Prophet.

The Punjab Government has ordered an inquiry while the Chief Minister of Punjab, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, termed the attack on the Christian minority a barbaric act. Despite the strong-worded condemnation by the Punjab government there is, however, little hope for the culprits to face justice or for the victims to be compensated for their loss of property and sense of belonging.

It was only in 2009 that a similar mob attacked another Christian community in Gojra, killing nine Christians, seven of whom were burnt alive. Dozens of homes including a church were torched. The Punjab government then made similar claims of protecting the minorities and bringing the culprits to justice. Four years later, not a single accused has been convicted for murdering Christians in Gojra. In fact, the Punjab government refuses even to publicise the findings of the Inquiry Report submitted to the Chief Minister in October 2009 by Justice Iqbal Hameedur Rehman of the Lahore High Court. This does not give much hope to religious minorities in Pakistan.

In both instances, the mobs attacked Christian neighbourhoods after unsubstantiated accusations of blasphemy were made against one or more persons. The mob, however, meted out collective punishment while the law enforcement agencies failed to protect the life and property of religious minorities. In both Gojra and Lahore, the Police could have preempted violence, but they did not.

And when the Police had the accused in custody, they were still not able to protect individuals even in the lock-up. Last December, a mob attacked a police station in Dadu to remove a man accused of blasphemy from the lockup. The mob dragged the man to a square where he was burnt alive.

Violence perpetrated by mobs against minority communities is often predicated on accusations of blasphemy. More often than not, such accusations end up proving false. Even in the case of the Gojra massacre, a rumour about the desecration of sacred religious text lead to the death of innocent Christians. Rana Sanaullah, Punjab’s law minister,  told Reuters that “It was just a rumor which was exploited by anti-state elements to create chaos.” What seemed a mere chaos to the law minister ended up being a death sentence for others.

In the absence of law and order, people have turned into a lynch mob in Pakistan. While it may appear that the most vulnerable in the society are being subjected to mob frenzy, the reality is that no one is immune regardless of one’s wealth or status. The assassinations of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and Salman Taseer, former governor of Punjab, prove this point.

Law and order are indeed public good. Just like clean air, the benefits of maintaining law and order accrue to all and not just to a few. It is extremely important for the State and the society to maintain law and order. Otherwise, the mob that ransacked Joseph Colony may march on to the Pak Tea House in search of blasphemers.

 


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Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at murtaza.haider@ryerson.ca

 


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