LAHORE: While the president of Toba Tek Singh chapter of the PML-N was named as one of the main accused in the FIR of the August 2009 anti-Christians riots in Gojra along with several leaders of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), PML-N MNA from Lahore has been absolved of land grabbing charge.
While taking suo moto notice of the anti-Christian riots in the Joseph Colony, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry had reprimanded the IG Punjab Police on March 11 and observed during the hearing: “At the prima facie, it gives the impression of a land dispute, for which the Christians houses were evacuated before being set on fire”.
The CJ’s remarks might have been motivated by media reports that Joseph Colony riots were possibly an attempt by an influential political figure of the area to get hold of the lucrative property of the Christians Colony which spreads over more than 20 kanals in the heart of Lahore. A mob forced some 170 Christian families to flee their Colony on March 9 before setting ablaze their houses over allegations that a Christian resident of the area had committed blasphemy.
A day after the riots, several Christian leaders including Bishop Akram Gill, the Bishop of Pakistan (of the Evangelical Christian community) and Dr Nazir Bhatti, the president of the Christians National Congress, had accused Malik Riaz of the PML-N (who was elected MNA from NA-118 Lahore) of leading an anti-Christian rally in Joseph Colony along with hundreds of the PNL-N and SSP workers.
According to them, it was on the evening of March 8 (a day before the attack) that the participants of the rally threatened the Christian residents of the area to vacate their houses in 24 hours or face their wrath. Before leaving the locality, the demonstrators put up banners against the Christians, saying, ‘The punishment of blasphemy is nothing less that beheading’. The Christian leaders alleged that the whole episode was masterminded by the PML-N leader to grab the valued land the Christians had their houses on.
The Joseph Colony was attacked despite the fact that the alleged blasphemer, Sawan Masih, had already been arrested by the local police. Following a preliminary inquiry into the Badami Bagh riots, the police have cleared the name of PML-MNA Malik Riaz, while rejecting allegations of his involvement in the ugly episode.
Police have identified 54 people as arsonists involved in the Badami Bagh violence and released 70 others as forensic evidence did not support their involvement. However, Malik Riaz has been cleared without even being interrogated or interviewed by the police. The police have so far failed to arrest any of the suspects, including prime suspect Imran Shahid who is also a complainant in the alleged blasphemy case against Sawan Masih.
According to the Lahore police sources, their investigations showed that neither any political party nor any PML-N leader had conspired to burn the Christians’ houses to grab their land. The police circles added that they had yet to establish the involvement of any religious or sectarian party in the arson attacks, including the SSP and Jamaat-ul Daawa, as being alleged by the Christians.
The police investigation has yet to establish the authenticity of the blasphemy charges levelled against Sawan Masih despite the fact that he was detained almost a week ago. It should be recalled that the Gojra riots of August 2009 (in which eights Christians were burnt alive) had also been triggered by reports of the desecration of the Holy Quran by some Christians, which eventually proved false.
The Gojra police had registered a murder case against 72 people under sections 462, 302, 380, 354, 295B, 149, 148 and 7ATA. The FIR also carried the names of the city president of Toba Tek Singh Abdul Qadeer Awan and several leaders of the SSP (which is already renamed as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat) including Maulana Abdul Khaliq, Qari Abidur Rehman Shah and Hafiz Muhammad Imran.
A year before the Gojra calamity, the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat had struck an electoral deal with the PML-N after which it had withdrawn its candidate in favour of Shehbaz Sharif in the June 2008 by-election from PP-48 Bhakkar to ensure his unopposed victory.
Shahbaz, who could not take part in the February 2008 elections after being disqualified by the Lahore High Court, eventually became the provincial chief executive on June 8, 2008 following the withdrawal of Maulana Abdul Hameed Khalid, the president of the Bhakar chapter of the ASWJ.
Coming back to the Gojra riots, a fact-finding mission of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had observed in its inquiry report that they were not a spontaneous reaction to blasphemy allegation but were planned in advance by fanatics belonging to the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a majority of whom had come from Jhang.
The HRCP mission had declared: “The Gojra episode is a comprehensive failure of the Punjab government to protect minorities either through administrative measures or legislative ones. The local administration’s inaction ahead of the riots was intriguing. The culprits, including the local administration, must be brought to justice in a speedy and transparent manner. The Punjab government must act to prevent any further attacks in future, which are based on a person’s faith, instead of belatedly reacting through award of compensation. It must also ensure that its vows of ensuring interfaith harmony move beyond rhetoric”.
The attackers went about destroying Christians’ houses in a very professional manner, and seemed to be trained for carrying out such activities. “The announcements made through mosques in Gojra on July 31, 2009 had urged the Muslims to gather and make mincemeat of the Christians. Next day, about 1000 people gathered in Gojra town and marched towards the Christian Colony.
The police force present in the neighbourhood didn’t try to stop the mob, which had brought along petrol and other inflammable material. The mob went on to torch over 100 houses of the Christians within half an hour. Many of the houses were looted before being torched. The Muslims’ houses adjacent to the Christians’ houses were spared. The barbaric riots are an embarrassment for any society or people who call themselves civilised”, so said the HRCP fact-finding mission report.
The hideous episode in Badami Bagh targeting the Christians has taken place at a time when the PML-N government in Punjab is already under fire from political opponents for trying to strike a seat adjustment deal with the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat in South Punjab for the upcoming general elections, although a Punjab government spokesman has refuted these reports.