The Lahore police just stood by on Saturday as violent mobs indiscriminately burned down at least 200 houses and 80 shops at a Christian inhabited locality in Punjab’s provincial capital after a Christian youth was accused of blasphemy the other day.
The mobs arrived at the Joseph Colony area in Badami Bagh police precincts around 10am in the morning and without wasting much time, set fire to almost all the houses in the locality. The small Christian community of the area had already been forced to flee the night before when the story of the alleged blasphemy charge surfaced.
According to details, Sawan Masih, 26, had been accused of blasphemy by a local barber Shahid Imran. An FIR was registered against the accused on the pressure of religious groups. Sawan was surrendered to the police late on Friday by a local NGO and has now been sent to prison on judicial remand.
Badami Bagh Station House Officer Hafiz Abdul Majid had admitted to Pakistan Today that the police had been forced to file an FIR against the accused to placate the angry mobs which were ready to burn down the houses amidst high tensions in the area.
Despite a heavy contingent of police present at the area to guard the locality, Christian residents were forced to flee overnight. The mobs, not to be swayed in their mission to purge the locality from “blasphemers”, turned up in the area early on Saturday and proceeded to wreak havoc on the community.
Muslim locals of the area told Pakistan Today that they had tried to stop the mobs, saying that they were setting fires to houses of innocent people.
“We tried to stop them but they wouldn’t listen. We have been living with these Christians for the last several years and there has been no religious animosity between us,” Mustafa Ahmed, who owns a tea stall in the area, told Pakistan Today.
Paying no heed to calls for calm, the mobs looted valuables, broke anything within arms length and burnt everything else to ashes. Two police officials, including the Station House Officer Hafiz Abdul Majid, sustained serious injuries when they tried to negotiate with the protesters. The enraged mobs also burnt down several motorcycles and some rickshaws parked in the streets.
Talking to Pakistan Today, Inspector Majid said that he had tried to placate the mobs but since his superiors had forbidden the police from exercising force, they had no choice but to stand down.
THE ‘CRIME SCENE’:
A visit to Joseph Colony presented the sight of a war-ravaged town, reminiscent of the destruction caused in the Gojra riots of 2009.
Talking to Pakistan Today, a visibly distraught citizen, Jehanzeb Masih said, “I have no idea what the Punjab government is doing. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has had poor record of safeguarding the rights of minorities in the country. Today’s targeting of our homes was one such example of the failure of the government to protect us.”
He said that the police contingents had remained on the sidelines, fingering their weapons, but not taking a single step forward to stop the violent mobs from destroying their homes.
He said that loot and plunder had been committed in the name of religion and the only people to have suffered were innocent bystanders.
Ijaz Masih, another resident, told Pakistan Today that certain individuals in the mob sawed off gas pipelines to ensure maximum damage to the houses.
“We are now forced to believe that this is not our country. Even if Sawan had committed the alleged blasphemy, why has the entire locality been subjected to such atrocity?”
Haroon Khokhar, a hapless father of four daughters, wept as he narrated to Pakistan Today how the raiders had forced their way into his house after breaking open four locks. “They took everything valuable that I possessed. They even took my daughters’ dowry that we have been collecting over the past several years. They also burned down my new rickshaw that I had bought just last week. I ask Shahbaz Sharif why he stopped the police from acting against the mobs,” he said.
ROLE OF CHRISTIAN NGOs:
The area’s residents were also critical of the role of some Christian non-government organisations such as CLAAS and Human Liberation Commission which, according to them, had only worked to worsen the situation.
“Joseph Francis of CLAAS, Salim and Aslam Sahotra used the incident for their vested interests. Sawan had initially been taken in by Salim and Aslam Sahotra who later handed him over to Joseph Francis. People close to the two groups told us that the latter had paid Rs 100,000 to them for Sawan’s custody. Francis then organised a photo session with the accused and around 2am on Saturday gave him in the custody of the Badami Bagh police,” a resident confided to Pakistan Today.
He said that the violence could have been prevented if Francis and the others had conveyed to the Muslims that Sawan had been handed over to the police. “They however chose to keep mum, which resulted in the massive damage to our homes. Loss of lives and property is good business for such NGOs. Now when we have lost everything they have the nerve to come to our neighbourhood again. It’s not just the Muslim extremists, there are black sheep within our community too.”
“Some NGO people retrieved burnt Bibles from the debris of houses and started raising a clamour that the mobs had desecrated the Christian holy book. They were literally pushing each other to get close to TV reporters…It is appalling that our homes and belongings have been destroyed yet these people are more concerned about burnt holy books and TV interviews,” he said, regretting that no Christian political leader had visited the locality since Friday evening to console them. “We are political orphans.”
‘I SAVED SAWAN’S LIFE’:
Reacting to the charge, Francis told Pakistan Today that he had not offered any money for Sawan’s custody. “I took him from his sister’s house. The locals are misinformed,” he said.
Francis said that he had presented Sawan to the police and had also conveyed to the area’s Muslims about his arrest. “The local Christians wanted to hand Sawan over to the police themselves but that would have surely led to his instant killing. I saved his life!”
Asked about the photo session with the accused, Francis readily agreed to email the photographs to the writer. “We will fight Sawan’s case because he is innocent,” he said, dodging a query on how several persecution cases handled by his organisation had been abandoned midway after the media hype died down.
Repeated attempts were made to contact Salim but he remained inaccessible.
PUNJAB GOVT MOVES:
As Joseph Colony simmered in smoke billowing from burnt furniture and crumbling roofs, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif held a press conference on Saturday evening, announcing Rs 200,000 compensation for each Christian family.
The CM said that the displaced Christians would be rehabilitated in their homes. He also announced a judicial enquiry into the incident, saying that the Punjab government is writing a letter to the Lahore High Court chief justice in this regard.
He said that the government would fulfill all its responsibilities regarding this tragic incident and the “mischievous elements” involved in this incident would be brought to justice.
The CM announced that SSP Sohail Sukhera and SP Multan Khan have been immediately made OSDs whereas the DSP and SHO of the area have been suspended.
Shahbaz also appreciated the police personnel for evacuating the Christians the night before, which he said had saved several lives.
“Rather than stopping the mobs from burning down the houses, the police watched the entire incident as bystanders and the CM has the audacity to praise them for ‘saving Christians’. What can we say but lament the fact that we are a minority governed by an indifferent people,” said a local Christian pastor.
With inputs by Rana Haider