The sectarian violence that swept Rawalpindi on the tenth day of Muharram last Friday has once again brought to the fore religious intolerance in an extreme form and tensions continue to simmer in the garrison city and elsewhere even after a few days.
On Tuesday, the naib khatib or preacher, Amanullah, of the Taleem ul Quran madrassa which was targeted on Friday told the media that at least 150 students from his madrassa were reportedly missing. While the official death toll is eleven, he said that one body was found today in the kitchen of the madrassa. The riots broke out on Friday at around 1.30 pm when a Muharram procession was passing the Talim ul Quran madrassa and masjid at Raja Bazar in Rawalpindi. There were reports of firing and arson in which over a hundred shops were gutted. The madrassa was founded in 1938 by Amanullah’s grandfather and has produced over 70,000 students so far. There were 600 residential students of the 1000 who attended classes. Mr. Amanullah said the madrassa was burnt and among the students missing were children between the ages of eight and fourteen. A few of the eleven dead were students and some parents had got in touch regarding the missing children who came from all parts of the country.
He said no one had an idea of how many were actually killed in the riots and where the bodies were taken to. He said every year the Muharram procession takes places around three pm but this time it was early and he was delivering the Friday prayers sermon that day at one pm.
However, many believe that it was his provocative speech that incited the members of the procession. Amanullah denied making any inflammatory remarks in his speech but many of the people present thought otherwise. Around 1.30 pm some members of the local administration had come to ask him to stop using the loudspeaker and soon after some people entered the compound with petrol bombs and started firing at the crowd. He clarified that even the day before no one had told him about the timing of the Muharram procession and neither had the administration asked him not to use loudspeakers.
He said after the attacks began, the police arrived five hours later when there was complete mayhem. He said far from being a sectarian clash it was an attack of one sect on another. He also said that there was no firearms licensed or unlicensed in the madrassa or mosque. However, journalists present at the scene of the riots questioned Mr. Amanullah about this. A senior journalist from a TV channel said his team was taken at gunpoint to the burning mosque and asked to show the footage live which was refused. Journalists and cameramen were even held hostage for a while and their vans were damaged by the mob too, he said and they barely managed to escape. Mr. Amanullah denied all this.
Senior journalist Mariana Babar, diplomatic correspondent for The News based in Rawalpindi, said that the situation was still tense and it was not all over yet. She blamed the district administration for not ensuring the Friday prayers were over before the Muharram procession reached the madrassa. “It could have been avoided totally if the loudspeakers were banned for that day,” she pointed out. She also said that many of the people in the procession were not from Rawalpindi and were armed to the teeth. Even the army was called out after everything had burnt down.
The day before the incident and on the morning, there were messages on twitter sent by a religious sect asking people to stop the Muharram procession. While the Punjab government has announced a judicial inquiry and taken action against some of the security personnel for dereliction of duty, Rawalpindi remains tense, though curfew was lifted on Monday after three days.
The violence spread to Kohat yesterday which killed two people, and the administration had to impose curfew. The government had to deploy the army in Multan and Chistian in the Punjab province since last week after violence. The army is still patrolling Rawalpindi.
The violence has been widely condemned and the administration has been blamed for not taking enough security precautions or banning loudspeakers on the procession route.