The ghastly attack on the Christian community in Jaranwala is yet another testament to the systemic violence and discrimination faced by religious minorities in Pakistan. Faced with majoritarian prejudice, legal and social exclusion and violent attacks by extremists, their own country has turned into nothing short of an inferno. Jaranwala was not the first and will not be the last attack that the community will endure.
The August violence in a small town of central Punjab occurred when the country’s elites were busy expressing the usual platitudes around Independence and the Pakistan dream. Unverified charges of blasphemy against a few Christian residents were cooked up, propagated and became a cause for mobilization by a religious group – the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan – that has emerged in recent years as a manufactured expression of Barelvi sectarianism. Within hours, dozens of homes and all the churches in the area were torched. Businesses and graveyards belonging to the Christian community were also viciously attacked.
The caretaker prime minister, politicians and civil society expressed their routine condemnations and the event gained massive coverage in the international media. As is the case with such attacks, they are easily forgotten and get buried in the chaotic news cycle. Tragically, this incident will also be handled with impunity. The blood of religious minorities is a regular offering for an array of violent extremist groups to keep them busy and allied with the imperatives of the deep state.
There is a clear pattern here. The 2009 Gojra attack led to the destruction of 60 houses and a church and eight Christians, including four women, were burned alive. No one was convicted. In 2013, a deranged mob torched dozens of houses in Joseph Colony, Lahore. More than 160 houses, 18 shops and two small churches were torched. Young men celebrating the violence will always define this shameful memory. In 2013, 78 people were killed and over 100 injured in a suicide bombing at a Peshawar church. Forget prosecution, the then provincial government did not even condemn the attack.
All such attacks have a common feature: inaction by the state authorities to punish the perpetrators. This impunity is not accidental, nor a result of incapacity. First, the groups that target non-Muslims are useful political assets and their influence is a function of how lethal they could be. Second, discriminatory attitudes have been socialized under the broader rubric of the ideology of Pakistan. Those who administer the justice system are not immune to the ‘national’ ideology that otherizes the non-Muslim. We have witnessed these attitudes flowing from the men occupying high-level offices to police constables. Third, sectarian groups employ intimidation against Muslims who do not adhere to their worldviews and violent tactics, thereby isolating and silencing them.
Lastly, after the mainstream press’s anti-minority messaging for decades, the rise of social media has become the new site for sectarian contestation. In the case of Jaranwala, social platforms played an insidious role in publicizing the blasphemy charges. Over the past few years, the TLP has used social media most effectively. Its digital footprint remains formidable, and the profit-making technology platform companies have no consistent or context specific policies to regulate dissemination of unverified claims. Social media plays up communal discord, otherization of minority communities and is now globally turning into a veritable sustainer of a violent ecosystem.
The plight of Christians in the Punjab is not too different from the everyday reality of Hindus in Sindh or Ahmadis across the country. Forced conversions of Christian and Hindu girls have been normalized and ineffective judicial processes have not been able to arrest the tide. All religious minorities now live in the legal and social frameworks set by the blasphemy law. Reforming the latter, let alone undoing it is next to impossible.
The political parties and their parliamentarians, who ought to be thinking about the grave implications of the abuse of the blasphemy card, are willing participants of this state project. When the TLP was fielded by the former head of the ISI in 2017 to pressurize the former PML-N government and erode Nawaz Sharif’s vote bank, it was lauded by Imran Khan. During the 2018 election, TLP slogans were mainstreamed. During Imran Khan’s tenure, two accords were signed after violent protests by the group against ‘blasphemous’ French cartoons.
After Imran’s exit, the PDM-led government adopted the same policy of appeasement and accommodation. Worse, under Shehbaz Sharif’s administration, the parliament bolstered the blasphemy laws and made them even more draconian. The future of Pakistan is imperceptibly moving towards Barelvi majoritarian politics. With mainstream parties facing the periodic wrath of the establishment or losing credibility, this shift seems inevitable.
It is now up to Pakistan’s battered and fractured civil society to remind the state of how it continues to treat its Christian subjects facing the triple exploitation of class, religious identity, and institutional discrimination. Social movements led by energized young men and women perhaps provide the way forward. There is little hope that the political parties or the miltablishment will deliver on their lip service, for they have brought the country to this tragic precipice.