Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Two years ago, Lahore’s Christian community was targeted. It is time to think of all marginalized communities of Pakistan.
Two years earlier, I was in California pursuing my Masters degree. It was close to midnight and I was about to sleep when my phone rang. It was unexpected to receive another call from home as I had talked to them only a few minutes ago. Picking up the phone, I heard my younger sister crying. I kept on asking what had happened and after a few moments, she told me that two Churches in Yuhannabad had just been bombed. “Oh my God! Where is Mum?” I asked immediately, as she happens to be a regular churchgoer, as compared to the rest of the family members. She answered that Dad had gone to look for her. At that moment, my whole world turned upside down. However, I still needed to be strong, if not for me, for the strength of my younger sibling.
After a few minutes, fortunately, my dad came back with my Mum. However, the extent of her trauma after witnessing all the bloodshed was unexplainable. This was not an end to her misery as many of her acquaintances had lost their lives. My parents lived in the vicinity for nearly 40 years. The 2015 bombings claimed 21 lives, injuring about 100 other residents of Yuhannabad, presumed to be the largest Christian community settlement in Pakistan with more than 100,000 inhabitants.
In July 2015, Centre for Social Justice published a fact-finding report, which portrayed a holistic picture of the incident and its consequences, along with some quality recommendations. These suggestions have, however, not been implemented so far.
Today, March 15, 2017, marks the second anniversary of the blasts. Lent (fasting) season is still being observed by the Christian community, as was the case two years previously. The Christian community, specifically the residents of Yuhannabad, are offering special prayers; remembering victims of these bombings; praying for the solace of the victims’ families and friends; and waiting for the end of their sufferings. They are saying a special prayer for the sufferings of 43 individuals--and their families--alleged of lynching two suspected accomplices of the terrorists. Many of those in police custody happen to be the sole breadwinners of their families that have been left impoverished. Families of persons under the trial claim that no credible evidence has yet been found against the individuals.
Of course, mob justice is unacceptable. The rule of law must prevail and no one should be above the law. However, seeing this lynching incident in isolation from the prevailing trends of mob justice in our society would not be of much help. In fact, it would lead to punitive justice rather than restorative justice, adding to the miseries of the already marginalised community. Unfortunately, the suffering of Yuhannabad residents that started on March 15, 2015, continues and has been overshadowed by the lynching incident.
The government’s monetary compensation to the victims’ families from the taxpayers’ money is not enough. These compensations need to go beyond money and should also address the psychological and emotional trauma that the incident brought to the already marginalised community. Damages of this kind need emotional and psychological restoration of the victim community. Rigorous conflict resolution and peacebuilding initiatives between Yuhannabad and the nearby majority community settlements would be helpful in rebuilding the trust between the communities and their social restoration. A few civil society organisations have invested in such initiatives despite limited resources. But this is not sustainable in the long term as civic initiatives cannot replace government-sponsored programmes.
One way to avoid such incidents in future is working towards a comprehensive implementation of the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s orders in its June 19, 2014, judgment. This verdict had ensued in the wake of the Court’s suo moto intervention concerning the 2013 bomb blast at All Saints Church, Peshawar.
Two years after the carnage, the community of Yuhannabad still seeks justice. Beyond Yuhannabad, the minority and marginalised communities await justice for being discriminated against--either in the name of religion, sect, ethnicity, gender or language. They are still struggling hard for their rights, largely, educational and economic opportunities, on the basis of equality and equal space in the social and political life.
An immediate opportunity at hand to address the long-standing grievances of these marginalised communities is the population census, which starts from today. An impartial, transparent, accurate and dependable process of data collection would help determine the allocation of socio-economic resources; affirmative action for political representation; educational opportunities; job quotas; preferences for developmental plans (rural and urban); and administrative initiatives to address the marginalization of minority communities. Instead of splitting the vote bank or minimising the strength of the already marginalised communities, a sensible demarcation of electoral constituencies for the upcoming elections would help include the deprived communities into the political mainstream.
Nearly twenty years ago, I was studying at Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore. My family found temporary residence at Jail Road so that I could commute to the college. During our stay there, my mother and an aunt (Muslim by faith) from the neighbourhood gradually developed a bond of sisterhood. On March 16, 2015, the very next day after the Church bombings, roads were blocked by the protests. Despite the risks, my Muslim aunt and her son endangered their lives and reached our place to support my family. They even offered to host my family at their place for security purposes until the situation got settled. The bond of humanity, love, and respect knows no faith.
Our state needs to rebuild the fabric of society by guaranteeing equal rights of all Pakistanis in every sphere of life. This can be done through simultaneous initiatives ranging from constitutional, legal, political, and educational reforms to affirmative administrative initiatives in order to eliminate discrimination and inequality in our society.
The issue of blasphemous content on the internet does need the attention of the government, no one denies that. But the response to this problem must be reasonable and proportionate above all else. Recent statements by the Islamabad High Court (IHC), which is hearing a petition on this matter indicate that the judge – Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui – may have allowed religious sentiment and a zealous mindset to take precedence over his legal duty to exercise dispassionate logic. There is real danger that he may return an absurd verdict, and his fairly extreme comments have already done irreparable damage to years of hard won progress on this sensitive narrative.
The petitioner seeks the ban of social media for displaying blasphemous content – not just a site or two, a complete ban on sites like Facebook and Twitter used by millions of Pakistanis and people across the world. While this is obviously a ridiculous demand, more rhetoric than a serious one, the honourable justice has given it credence, saying that if the government is unable to block access to suspect sites, the court may have to order such a complete ban.
This would clearly be a travesty of the principles of proportionality and a mockery of common sense. Blocking the entirety of social media – one that provides information, connectivity, education and a platform for business – for such a minor issue is overkill, and severely harmful to the people of Pakistan’s daily activities. Like the Youtube ban, it will only stifle intelligent discourse and access of information, and will be eventually reversed when the authorities realise the futility and foolishness of such an action.
The better route is to ask the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to review sites that viewers find objectionable – a system that the body already has in place – and rely on it to weed out the actual problem. Even so, the more logical course is to ask the petitioner to practice circumspection. The internet is a vast place full of all kinds of material; people usually exercise their discretion and wisdom to stay away from sites that might offend them, as should the petitioner. Instead of asking the court to delete social media, maybe he should simply refine his internet practices. No one can ban everything objectionable on the internet unless one bans the internet itself – a prospect that the court must consider.
There is a need to dial back his religious fervour and act as a federal judge cognisant of his role and the power of his words. The Youtube ban stunted the growth of Pakistani society and made it a laughing stock of the world, the social media ban will repeat it – only it will be so much worse.