Last Wednesday, a mob attacked a Christian colony in Pakistan’s Jaranwala and burned 22 churches and looted a large number of houses forcing hundreds of citizens of the minority community to flee to neighbouring areas. The mob demanded that the police hand over two men who they claimed had committed blasphemy. Like previous incidents, the police and other law enforcement forces stood as mute witnesses for days before swinging into action.
This was not an isolated incident. In December 2021, in the industrial town of Sialkot, nearly 50 km from Jaranwala, a Sri Lankan Buddhist, Priyantha Diyanwada, was lynched by hundreds at a factory where he worked as a manager for nearly seven years. Diyanwada was accused of removing a poster with religious remarks.
Pakistan brought terrorism charges against 900 individuals and arrested several persons who were part of the mob. Diyanwada’s remains were sent to his family in Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Imran Khan bestowed Tamgha-e-Shujaat, a bravery award, on Malik Adnan, a colleague of Diyanwada who tried initially to protect him from the mob. But the case against the attackers hasn’t reached anywhere.
In Pakistan, blasphemy is punishable by death. These incidents showed how the blasphemy laws have become an excuse for vigilantism in the era of social media.
In 2011, Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer was gunned down outside a pizza outlet in Islamabad’s picturesque Kohsar market, which is known for its cuisine and book stores.
Taseer had boldly taken on the supporters of the blasphemy laws and defended Christian farm worker Asiya Bibi, who was convicted of blasphemy by a court in 2010 and sentenced to death. The sentencing triggered an outcry among liberal Pakistanis which drew Taseer into the issue. Mumtaz Qadri, who fired the shots at him, was Taseer’s bodyguard. He was given death sentence by a court in 2016 and executed later, but his grave became a place of worship for those who support the law.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence for Asiya Bibi who was given asylum in Canada in 2019. The case that shook Pakistan showed that the legal system could be moved to defend the life of a person falsely accused of blasphemy, but it is far more difficult to deal with elements that have made blasphemy a case for generating political fortune.
This difficulty is rooted in the history of Pakistan, stretching back to the Zia-ul-haq years when the Hudood ordinances were brought in 1979 as Gen. Zia wanted to make Pakistani laws in sync with Sharia. The region also has a history of religious polarisation going back to the days of the Khilafat movement and the Hindu-Muslim politics of pre-Partition Punjab, when the publication of a controversial book on the Prophet led to the assassination of publisher Rajpal Malhotra or Mahashey Rajpal in Lahore 1929. It is said that the publication was a tit-for-tat act against the publication of a book targeting a Hindu figure.
Current political links between the extremist foot soldiers of Pakistan and political parties are therefore not new and from time to time, such groups have emerged to stoke tensions over blasphemy. Foremost among such contemporary forces is the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which had supported death for Asiya Bibi.
Latest reports on the Jaranwala violence have shown that a few locals who were displaced on Wednesday have returned to the neighbourhood and authorities are trying to restore normalcy. The locals have said the rioters did not belong to Jaranwala and appeared to have come from outside. The reports prompted Karamat Ali, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research in Karachi, to argue that the incident shows that elements within the Pakistani state might be involved in creating it as a diversionary event to steer people’s attention from other issues.