November 15, 2020

A government official in the Sanitation Department threatening Christian workers with blasphemy charges is alarming, dangerous and shines a spotlight on religious bigotry


recent viral video of a clash that took place between sanitation workers of Municipal Corporation Islamabad (MCI) shows Mohsin Sherazi, the CDA officer hurling verbal abuse at and threatening to lodge a blasphemy case against the workers.

“It appears that there is a crowd of 30-40 people, who are Christians,” Pervez William, a TV and stage playwright and rights activist based in Islamabad, tells The News on Sunday (TNS).

Since this is not a complete footage, it does not carry key information.

The mayor of Islamabad resigned sometimes ago after some citizens started protesting over heaps of garbage littering the city and he had no satisfactory answers. There has been unrest among MCI officials, especially sanitation workers, for some months.

After him, the Capital Development Authority (CDA) mounted a mega ‘lit-up Islamabad’ move and took in four major directorates of the MCI including Sanitation and City Sewerage Directorate.

The sanitation contractors who had had a monopoly on the city for decades were shown the door and a new contractor was hired. Since then, the city streets have been cleaned, roads repaired and parks lit up.

However, in a city that engages over 2,000 Christians in sanitation work, their grievances were not duly taken care of. They have been objecting to their management by officials who do not have experience in sanitation work themselves.

Sherazi alleges that the video has been doctored and does not tell the whole story. He says the Christian workers had been protesting “against Muslim inspectors at various sectors in Islamabad”.

“In that particular incident, they were unhappy even with a Christian inspector,” he claims.

“I was informed of the unrest and visited the site. When I talked about lodging a blasphemy case, I was referring to the slogans they had shouted earlier saying ‘Muslim Inspector Na-Manzoor’,” he says.

“The video is heavily edited. Of course, I shouldn’t have [even] said so. I’ve also issued a message saying I regret that incident,” he says.

William says that the mere mention of a potential blasphemy charge is a cause of terror among non-Muslims.

“No one should resort to such tactics”, he says, questioning how it was possible to be “so creative” in such an environment of dread.

“If you live in fear, it affects all of your faculties. Many Christians do not educate their children because they know that they will not be able to get good jobs due to fears of these blasphemy allegations [among other factors]”, he says.

CDA worker leaders say that their version on the incident may be taken from their union general secretary Chaudhry Yasin.

“We are all mazdoor bhai (brothers in labour). We work together beyond the boundaries of sects and religions. This incident is condemnable and shouldn’t have happened in the first place. International media is also taking interest in it,” says Yasin.

“We shouldn’t fan religious differences. The institution has taken action, an inquiry has been called and an apology rendered. Now it’s time to move on. We, Muslims and Christians, have been working here together for decades and it should go on,” he adds.

Islamabad is dotted with settlements which have not been given legal cover, where most residents are Christian. These are areas where most sanitation workers live. It is posited that they are ‘allowed’ to live as they have ‘proved their utility’ by supplying ‘an army of domestic workers’ to nearby upscale areas.

However, back in 2012 an attempt was made to burn these areas down when an underage Christian girl Rimsha Masih was accused of blasphemy. An eyewitness later said that a Muslim cleric actually committed the blasphemy that Masih was accused of. The girl was let go. At that time, this scribe was told that wood and oil had been brought to burn the Christian settlement close to the Mauve Area where Masih lived. It is alleged that the construction mafia had a role in fanning these flames as they wanted to build big plazas in the area.

Islamabad is once again witnessing development activity that is attracting big builders to the city.

Though Sherazi, who has been working with the CDA for nearly three decades, and the Christian sanitation workers entered a truce on Wednesday at a Church in Sector G, authorities should keep in mind the fact that such a volatile situation could potentially have been exploited by powerful groups.

CDA Chairman Amer Ahmed Ali has suspended Sherazi and ordered an inquiry against him by the capital administration. Ali is also head of the administration being the chief commissioner of the federal capital. This convergence of command means that it is his responsibility to see to it that the inquiry is completed without fear or favor.

Communal discord and unchecked religious bigotry have disastrous effects for society. William believes that intolerance is a social phenomenon and should not be measured through political or administrative tools.

“It isn’t limited to Christians. Look how a Muslim killed a Muslim bank manager, accusing him of blasphemy recently. It was later clear that the murderer had ulterior motives. So is the case with most blasphemy cases. As a society we should rise against it,” he says.

The writer studies and teaches media. He can be reached on Twitter at @furraat

Sanitised: Govt official in Islamabad's Sanitation Department threatening Christian workers with blasphemy charges is alarming