The grip of terror

November 15, 2020

In Khushab, a bank manager was shot by the bank's guard over alleged blasphemy. The disturbing video of the killer’s enthusiastic celebration by a charged mob highlights the challenges to deradicalisation of society

Hundreds of people gathered in front of the Quaidabad police station in Khushab district in the Punjab on November 4 to resist the arrest of a security guard at a local branch of National Bank of Pakistan who had shot dead the branch manager during duty hours and later tried to justify his action by accusing the deceased of blasphemy. Bank officials, family of the murdered man and local clerics deny the charge.

The guard, Ahmad Nawaz, CCTV footage shows, had shot dead bank manager Malik Imran Hanif on the bank premises. Later, a rally was taken out by his supporters who chanted slogans to the effect that devout Muslims cannot tolerate blasphemy. Nawaz did not show any signs of remorse. Video footage circulating on social media shows him in high spirits. It also shows a number of people rushing to embrace and congratulate him. Some are seen kissing his hand as a gesture of reverence. A section of the crowd climbed the roof of the police station and presented him to the others as a ‘hero’. The police were largely quiet.

“There were hundreds of them; there was nothing we could do about it. I cannot say anything about the case,” a policeman told The News on Sunday. “The killer is in judicial custody now. I cannot tell you anything about the investigation,” Station House Officer Raja Arshad says.

The comments do nothing to dispel the impression that the police are under some kind of pressure and extending tacit support to the suspect. The police did not seek physical remand of the killer, apparently in view of the law and order situation. None of the bank officials lodged a complaint against their security guard. In the end it was left to the family of the deceased to file a complainant.

A close relative of the deceased said he had reprimanded Nawaz and told him to “not to take long prayer breaks during his duty hours.”

“Our brother has been killed over a personal grudge and the killer is hiding behind a smokescreen of religious sentiment. We are a Muslim family. None of us can think of committing blasphemy,” says Muhammad Rizwan, a brother of the deceased and the complainant in the case.

“This is totally unjust. The bank manager was innocent. He didn’t commit blasphemy,” says a joint letter penned by noted Islamic clerics of the area, endorsing the family’s plea.

“We don’t see the state playing a firm role. [It is] apparently hand-in-glove with those promoting extremism and benefiting from it (sic) because it has frequently sued religious groups for political purposes,” says Sabookh Syed, a researcher and journalist. He adds, “Unless and until [the] state deals with these elements strictly, such incidents will continue to happen.” He says that the National Action Plan (NAP) to deal with extremism and terrorism is “not being implemented.” He says that extremism is rising by the day and allegations of blasphemy are being instrumentalised, without any hesitation, by various elements against different groups and classes.

“There were hundreds of them; there was nothing we could do about it. I cannot say anything about the case,” a policeman told The News on Sunday. “The killer is in judicial custody now. I cannot tell you anything about the investigation,” Station House Officer Raja Arshad says.

For now, there seems to be no respite. A day after the incident in Khushab, some students at the University of Science and Technology, Kohat, thrashed a fellow student for his comments on social media. According to university officials the situation ‘forced’ the university to suspend the student’s admission and to tell his parents “to cancel the admission” or to “get credits transferred to another varsity.”

The student is on bail now after a case was registered against him under Section 295-A of Pakistan Penal Code which relates to making blasphemous remarks against companions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The crime carries a penalty of (up to) 10 years imprisonment.

“The student [allegedly] wrote an inappropriate post [on Facebook]. It resulted in agitation not only at the university but also elsewhere in Kohat,” the police say.

Last week, an 82-year-old Ahmadi man was shot dead in a recent string of ongoing attacks against religious minorities. Since July, when a boy killed Tahir Ahmed Naseem in a court room while the judge was hearing blasphemy charges against him, this is the third incident in Peshawar.

A few days ago, the Islamabad district administration had suspended an official in charge of two groups of sanitary workers for threatening “to lodge blasphemy cases to teach the workers a lesson”.

Separately, in an anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Islamabad, an Urdu literature teacher and three others accused of blasphemy have been on trial for four years. The three deny the accusations saying that “the interpretations of religion or literature or independent thoughts on such subjects is not and should not be treated as blasphemy”.

“These accusations elicit [a] strong sentiment in society. But, we see no reason at all in taking law into [one’s] hands and killing people over such accusations. Islam does not allow this,” Qibla Ayaz, the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, tells TNS.

“Law and order agencies have a strong role in controlling such situations. There is need also for educating people to prevent such violence. The religious leaders have a leading role in this regard,” says Ayaz, arguing that this violence cannot be curbed if the religious leaders and state do not play their roles.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2019 report, highlighted that at least 80 people were imprisoned in Pakistan for blasphemy and at least half of them are facing a life or death sentence. Scores have been killed over the years, many in judicial/police custody.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

The grip of terror