Christian community must turn to politics to end ‘untouchability’
Underpaid, reduced to slavery, at the doorstep of the ruler,
Only a share was given to us from the heap of left-over grains
–Bullah Shah, Mein Choorhaetari Aan
Two hundred houses were looted and burnt – Bibles were burnt to ash and crosses put to flame – by a mob of over 2,000 Muslims at Joseph Colony, Badami Bagh in Lahore. At the heart of it was a drunken exchange of abuses between two men: a Muslim and a Christian. Somehow, after one day of silence, the exchange was reported to have involved certain allegedly ‘blasphemous’ remarks against the Prophet (PBUH). Sunni Tehreek activists entered the fray to act as ‘witnesses’ to the apparent quarrel in the Christian’s billiards shop. First: the accused’s father was arrested under mob pressure last Friday, then the accused turned himself in. However, the climate was reported to have been amplified by the entry of certain external actors and police officials asked the over 200 Christian families in Joseph Colony to leave. They did. The next morning, it was as if police had invited the mob to ransack, loot and burn Joseph Colony as they stood and watched. Media got a full out view of the mob attack. And slowly but surely viewers began to react and condemn the incident – but while confined to drawing rooms.
The homes that were burnt were not ours.
We would call the violence: “outrageous”, “madness”, “shameful” but it would not force us to get out of our homes – or even question the everyday practices which cause such an event. Surely, the daily discrimination against Christians, labelling of them as ‘untouchables’ – let alone questioning the perimeters of the blasphemy law is what the debate should have been about. “The violence was wrong but the accused must still be punished” was the view many presented on the day. The fact that a drunk man’s testimony – let alone accusation – has little weight in the due process of law. To the mob who burnt down Joseph Colony “the drunk Muslim was upholding the honour of their Prophet”.
The irony in the ground reality was lost on most Muslim Pakistanis – but certainly not on the city’s 500,000 strong Christian community. Protests began the same day and lasted till Tuesday. But more reason for outrage should have been found. The same police force that stood by and watched 3,000 people loot and plunder Joseph Colony, fired over 500 tear gas canisters on Youhanabad, the largest Christian settlement in the country, with over 4,000 households. Over a hundred Christians were arrested at a point when no one had been arrested for the Joseph Colony mob attack. Policemen in riot gear told a reporter in this newspaper: “These are choorhas.”
The term evoking the severe caste-based discrimination prevalent in the subcontinent Muslims maintains that Christians/choorhas (used interchangeably) are ‘untouchables’. This was clearly the basis of the Asia Bibi case which came to light in late 2010 and by early 2011 had resulted in the murder of both the then Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti. Having spent two months back then trying to get to the bottom of the case, the only undisputed fact was that the cleric and two accusing ladies believed that “Christians could not shake hands with Muslims, let alone eat with them”. The principle the public protests against the demand for her release defended was not the honour of the Prophet (PBUH) but the right to maintain the status of Christians as ‘untouchables’.
The same is true of the police action in Youhanabad. On a day when the Christian community came out in large numbers to the Press Club and Punjab Assembly and blocked a number of major traffic routes, the use of heavy handed police tactics on them was designed to achieve nothing but ensure that the community is not able to exert its influence on the city’s politics. If this was not the Punjab government’s purpose then may we ask: where was the tear gas and riot police when Joseph Colony was being burnt down?
Most are already aware that the Badami Bagh incident was not in isolation – but took from similar mob attacks over alleged blasphemy in Shantinagar in 1997, Bahmniwala and Gojra in 2009. Those responsible for these earlier attacks are still running scot-free, with even the clerics who incited the Muslim community against the Christian community, still manning their respective pulpits. These earlier incidents were put down to “rural unruly-ness”, without recognition of the dual spatial and social segregation that operates on Pakistani Christians. The Christian quarters in Punjab’s new colonial villages was always kept separate. The Christians – or choorhas – would provide the menial labour of the village. The fact that colonial segregation practices have been transplanted onto urban space is rarely given much thought.
A recent publication, The Unconquered People, traces the ‘untouchables’ status we give to the Christian community to the caste system which originated with the arrival of the Arian people in the Indus Valley Civilisation. A tribe known as the Chandhala tribe in the period is understood to be the mother tribe of modern day subcontinental Christians. The kaafi quoted at the start of the article by Bullah Shah refers to organised social movements amongst the choorha community in the 18th century against state and social oppression in the Punjab. The kaafi was erased from record due to its radical content since it involved a high caste Muslim (Bullah Shah) claiming untouchability and making it subversive. It bred resistance and thus had to be neutered.
It entered British colonialism and the roots of subcontinental Christianity spread amongst the lower castes, including the choorha caste. However, subcontinental Christianity, originating in the colonial project, was constructed as deeply loyal to the state and deeply subversive to resistance – much like the early Christianity in Latin America. Biblical traditions are being cited amongst the Pakistani Christian community today to justify continued loyalty to a state which has both failed to provide them security of life and dignity – and repressed them when they have stood up for their rights.
Unlike subcontinental Christianity, Latin American Christianity developed a strong tradition of resistance which became known as liberation theology – a project which saw human emancipation in the material world as the primary end that religion exhorted human beings to pursue. A more recent example is that the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, considered deeply pro-poor, claimed to be deeply religious and was known to call “Jesus Christ” his hero.
Caste is not merely caste. It has a material basis. If the economic conditions of a community are the same, then claims that they have been raised to dignity are fake. As it stands, it is the pastoral community, with its political patrons in mainstream political parties, which is the greatest hurdle to an active politics emerging from within the Christian community calling for an end to discrimination against them. This is quite unlike the strong resistance movements around adhivasi or dalit that developed across the border in India.
The fact that there is no elected Christian sitting in all five assemblies in Pakistan should be taken as an indicator. The so-called Christian political leadership has been developed by mainstream political parties, who dole out reserved seats to those most loyal to them. Nothing can be a greater farce than the fact that the Christians sitting in the assemblies and Senate are not accountable to their own community. There is a strong case for the old demand of a dual vote for Christians to be raised with more force after the Badami Bagh incident. Big names amongst the community such as Senator Karman Michael and Akram Gill have done nothing more than issue press releases. The situation is so bad that one of the recent bishops of Lahore declared that “Christians will need an armed militia” if such incidents continue. The remarks were reportedly blacked out by the media.
Incidents such as the Badami Bagh incident are not the worst we have done to the Christian community – these are merely the tip of the iceberg. It is the day to day treatment of Christians that must outrage us more. But more than the outrage we feel, it is the Christian community that must stand up and present a united political agenda. If Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri can fly in and bring over 100,000 people to a public rally in Lahore, why can the half a million strong Christian community in the city not organise a similar rally? It is the Christian community that must break out of their fear and claim their dignity if such incidents are not to be repeated. Dignity will not be bestowed by anyone from the outside.
Perhaps Bullah’s conclusion to Mein Choorhaetaree Aan can serve as inspiration:
We are neither Hindu nor Turk, of neither this class nor that
Indifferent from halal and haram, we don’t respect either
When the beloved face was unveiled, O Bullah, we were afraid of thrones no more
The writer is the general secretary (Lahore) of the Awami Workers Party. He is a journalist and a researcher. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org