OVER A COFFEE : Metro bus: from Gojra to Badami Bagh — I — Dr Haider Shah
There is a method in the madness of religious violence. It begins by attacking the weakest section of a society and then like a jungle fire spreads in all directions
Every time I think that the
worst is over a new incident drills a hole in my upbeat optimism about future. As a horrific reminder that time remains frozen in certain parts of the world, in FATA’s Shia-dominated agency, a Pakistan army soldier was stoned to death by a tribal congregation after being accused of developing romantic relations with a local girl. And the heartrending episode of torching houses and private property of fellow citizens on flimsy grounds of communal rage makes us wonder if the Pakistani society travelling in the opposite direction has entered the Sumerian and Aztec times when humans were sacrificed for pleasing imaginary gods of heaven.
Just recently the Punjab government launched the Metro bus project and then followed it up with completion of the Kalma Chowk underpass, which deserves appreciation. But when in the same city, a rampaging crowd burns down houses of a religious minority, I am not sure if development is actually taking place. Aboard the Metro bus I feel like travelling between Gojra and Badami Bagh witnessing charred houses of Christians and incinerated school bags and books. The hounds of extremism and fiends of blind faith patrol the streets everywhere.
A good IT system needs latest hardware as well as software. In societal terms, projects like the Metro bus help in hardware development but without paying attention to the mental development of ordinary people the benefits of physical infrastructure related progress alone remain extremely restricted. For instance, Hitler spent a lot on economic development of Germany, but being a bigot himself he cultivated dogmatic thinking among common supporters of the Nazi party with devastating long term consequences. It is, therefore, important that along with megaprojects like the Metro bus the important duty of rationalising the thinking of our common citizens and updating their operating systems is not completely ignored.
Whether the customary foreign hand is to be conveniently blamed or the footprints of some conspiring land grabbing mafia are to be searched, the gravity of the situation in Gojra or Joseph Colony does not go away. The fact that one single accusation by a semi-illiterate member against another near-illiterate member of a locality should soon galvanise thousands of enraged people belonging to almost all age groups is a sign of a more serious malaise that has gripped society as a whole. Let us be more objective about the situation. The inflammable dogmatic mind-set of an average resident of Punjab is well known since the days of the British Raj. Near the partition time in Punjab millions of human beings turned into blood seeking vampires overnight once they were under the spell of faith-inspired hatred of fellow human beings. The propensity to violence in the name of religious code of honour was again witnessed in 1953 when clerics found ‘khatm-e-nabuwat’ a convenient rallying point to get organised and prove their nuisance value. The indoctrination carried out by Ziaul Haq only strengthened the forces of obscurantism as Punjab became a recruiting ground for volunteers for Afghan and Kashmir jihad. Since sectarianism helps in getting young people organised and motivated in no time, mushrooming of sectarian outfits was also witnessed in that era. There is a method in the madness of religious violence. It begins by attacking the weakest section of a society and then like a jungle fire spreads in all directions. Just look at the case study of Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the late founder of the Sipah-e-Sahaba organisation. He first earned fame as a basher of the Ahmadis. Then he turned his guns against the Barelvi faith followers and finally went full blast against the Shias. The enabling environment of post-Afghan jihad days facilitated his cause so much that he soon emerged as a political rival to the local influential politicians and bagged around 40,000 votes against Abida Hussain. After his murder, another stalwart Azam Tariq began winning the Jhang seat by big margins. What we experience today has always had its roots in yesterday. So for understanding the current religious extremism-inspired violence in Punjab we must not ignore the influence of the past. But the problem of extremism is spread all over the country. A Pakistan People’s Party MNA in Sindh brazenly patronised alleged abduction and forced conversion of Hindu girls, and the federal minister from the Awami National Party Ghulam Ahmad Bilour stunned everyone when he announced a reward of millions of rupees for killing the producers of a blasphemous movie made in the US. In both bases, the parties that call themselves liberal and progressive did not initiate action against their leaders.
The Joseph colony incident reminded me of London riots when the rioters took full advantage of police’s reluctance to use strong measures, and consequently, shops were looted and private property damaged. There was then a big outcry in the UK media over police’s inaction. The police salvaged some of its lost pride by making sure that anyone who took a part in rioting was prosecuted and brought to justice. Photos of miscreants were displayed at public places and on social networking sites as well. Judiciary also threw its support and maximum punishments were handed down to all those who participated in acts of rioting. We can give the Punjab police the benefit of doubt that it did not want to aggravate an already charged situation. But now it can restore our faith if we see all participants of arson attack get exemplary punishments. Only this way the Metro bus will remain on its route and not shuttle between Gojra and Badami Bagh.
(To be continued)
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org