Kiran Omar


“The recent unprovoked attacks on Christian communities living in the Punjabi village of Gojra, have left the country and the international community reeling with shock and horror.” This is the opening sentence of Omar’s article.


The barbarity of the attacks – burning alive innocents; and the viciousness – widespread destruction of homes, businesses and property; has revealed the depth and growth of communal disharmony and intolerance in Pakistani society. Human rights advocates and ordinary citizens condemned this rampant display of barbarity and the apparent disinterest and inability of the State’s administrative and security forces to prevent and contain the incident. It displays the skewed priorities of the both the Federal and Provincial governments on matters that concern public safety.


 The Gojra incident brings new urgency to the issue of dealing definitively and decisively with fundamentalism and militancy both internal and external that threatens the social fabric of the country. It also brings to the fore the need to give serious and urgent thought to the question of identity of Pakistan as a nation, and its raison d’être. The founding fathers of the country had envisioned a nation that extended equal and inalienable rights of citizenship to ALL, irrespective of religion, color, sex or social status. Yet 62 odd years down the road, we see a nation deeply divided over the definition of “citizenship” and “belonging”. Who can truly claim full rights of citizenship and who will be eternally considered “others” and outsiders? Who will decide the levels of “otherness”? Is it the State’s responsibility or is it an issue that will be settled on the streets with vengeance, anger and violence?


Ostensibly, the Muslims of Gojra, were incited by the Christians who had “blasphemed” against the Quran by desecrating it. A charge that has yet to be investigated and proved. It must be noted that minorities in Pakistan comprise the more economically disadvantaged groups. Their access to economic and social benefits are limited and it often takes much effort to rise out of their spirals of poverty, low income jobs and limited economic prospects. The perpetrators of the violence and destruction took unilateral, vigilante action without reference to any judicial or security institution, and it appears that the main motivations were appropriation of properties and possessions of these minority communities and blatant intolerance of any “others”.


One of the most fundamental rights that people have under any democratic government or system is the assurance of personal security and efficient and effective policing. This right was utterly violated in Gojra . Official reprimand, apologies and determination to seek out the truth has been slow to come and at best been weak and ineffective. It gives credence to the rising belief that in order to safeguard their personal and communal safety; the citizenry must resort to vigilante actions and take the law into their own hands. A realization that is exhibited time and again; in Karachi in the recent past where ordinary citizens fed up of continued and growing gang war, robberies, violence and other crimes, have resorted to arming themselves and meting out justice in the form of burning, thrashing and other punishments to criminals. Does this now mean that minority communities must resort to counter-vigilantism to combat the sustained and insensible attacks on their communities? Is this a new form of “witch hunt” and will usher in a cycle of violence against anyone who is deemed opposing beliefs and views of those who purport to be the voice of the “majority”. Which brings us to question: Who IS the voice of the majority? Groups of people who espouse radical, fundamental and dogmatic viewpoints that leaves no space for beliefs and choices of others? Who will decide which of these groups represent the “majority” of Pakistanis? Is it the State? Is it large mobs rampaging willfully against their own fellow citizens?


The Gojra incident and other previous shameful incidents, have forced Pakistanis to take a good hard look at their identity and how they wish to shape it in the future. It had prompted debate into the “rightness” and “fairness” of controversial laws like the infamous Blasphemy Law that was forced into the Pakistan Penal Code by the dictatorial government of Gen. Ziaul Haque. Successive governments, even the two stints of the self-proclaimed ‘secularist’ Benazir Bhutto-led PPP have done nothing to change these laws. The Blasphemy Law is vague in its wording and extremely dangerous as it threatens to engulf both minority and majority communities by fanning the flames of revenge and extremist intolerance. Religion and its interpretations are best left to the individuals to organize their private spaces; it should not have prominence in the functioning of the State which is bound by its social contract to extend equal rights and judicial protection to ALL its citizens irrespective of their personal faiths or beliefs.


The rumor mill works overtime in Pakistani society and conspiracy theories abound from the bizarre to the absurd. It is essential to clarify that in cases like Gojra and others, the violence and intolerance comes from within, there is little room for blame to be apportioned to non-state actors. These incidents are the fruit that years of indoctrination and poorly managed education has borne. Any attempts to correct these wrongs must also come from within the society otherwise there can be little hope for any realistic step forward towards strengthening democracy and creating a just society. The cancer grows within and the remedy too must come from within.


The onus falls on the elected government that must restore its legitimacy in the eyes of its electorate. The Zardari/Gilani Government must fulfill the mandate handed by the people of Pakistan and it falls on the civil society to ensure that  it makes good its promise. A first step towards healing these open wounds is to collectively recognize and acknowledge that Pakistani society is accountable, each and every citizen, of failing its minorities and usurping their rights. It must be publicly recognized that those state and non-state elements, supported and cultivated by vested interests like the Army, US administrations and military/civil dictators have now turned on the mainstream citizens and threaten to seriously destabilize the country. The genies, so to speak, are out of their bottles and refuse to be put back. The military extended blanket patronage to such fundamentalist elements to further their own geo-political agendas, and they now stand poised to not only spread violence and terror, but also to hijack the psyche of the people.


If Pakistan is to emerge as a strong, democratic state that can guarantee justice and security to its citizens, there is an urgent need to stem the rising tides of intolerance, religious hysteria and tyranny. Public spaces are much better occupied by discourses on how to improve the quality of lives of the citizenry, not how to cow them through fear mongering and violence against personal beliefs. This is a great opportunity for the present, democratically elected government to rise to the expectations of the people and GOVERN, and to chart a new, promising direction for the nation, a direction of peace, justice and equality of all its people.



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