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Sunday January 16, 2022

Blood on our hands

December 04, 2021

For too long have we gazed into the abyss – and it is now openly gazing back. Those who rule us should hang their heads in collective shame after yesterday’s horrifying lynching and torching of a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot by an enraged mob of factory workers. Priyantha Kumara had been working in Sialkot for nearly a decade. The mob, it is understood from initial reports, became incensed after news spread that he had torn down a religious poster. Though details are scant, there are questions regarding possible political affiliation or support among the mob for violent political groups such as the TLP. If any of us professes shock that such an attack could take place here, that humanity could sink so low, their surprise would ring rather hollow. Pakistan has become home to more and more incidents involving attacks by mobs on people accused, often falsely, of blasphemy. A few days ago a mob in Charsadda attacked a police station to target a man accused of blasphemy. The police prevented the mob from entering the premises and the IG and senior police officials explained that the man was mentally insane. In 2012, in a village near Islamabad, 14-year-old Rimsha Masih, a mentally challenged girl from the Christian community, was arrested and later found to be completely innocent, the case against her deliberately fabricated by a local cleric. And who can forget the heartbreaking lynching of Mashal Khan – a young man with so much promise. Only last month, the TLP, whose workers beat up and killed policemen, entered into a vague deal with the government. The fact is that we stand here today due to the impunity with which extremist groups operate in the country and the complicity of the state.

Whenever something as horrifying as the Sialkot mob murder happens, we all bring out the neverforget hashtags and vow to make sure this is the last time we allow such a crime to be committed in our name. Then, a few days later, the media finds some new scandal with which to whip up outrage in the name of ratings and all is forgotten. Of course, there are the perfunctory words of condemnation issued by the government and by politicians but the unfortunate fact is that almost all mainstream political parties have benefited from this weaponisation of religion. Past examples show that even police officers are unclear on how to deal with religiously charged mobs as any action by the police raises questions over their faith. Meanwhile, the Punjab chief minister has sought a full report into the incident – something that has rarely, if ever, led to anything of much value.

The brutality on display in Sialkot is once again a reminder that violence and extremism in a country that has lost its very soul is growing even worse. In the case of Priyantha Kumara, we can see what happens when the state cedes space to violent mobs. It is time for the state and government to level with the citizenry. The government needs to draft a concrete plan to deal with growing extremism in the country. We can’t simply be told that talks will be held with militants and violent extremist groups and then everything will miraculously resolve itself. It must be explained, in great detail, exactly what is being done to check the triumphant march of hatred and madness. What deals have been made? What concessions have been placed on the table? If there is to be any red line, what is it? Right now, the government does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. For too long has it coddled and appeased such groups and forces. It needs to decisively break away from them if it does not want to be considered complicit in such acts. We have remained silent for far too long – and this silence now has a lot of blood on its hands.

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