The timing of the Joseph Colony incident in the Badami Bagh area of Lahore on March 9 could not have been worse for the PML-N. As the party was basking in the glory of the latest popularity polls, the outcry and the apportionment of blame on the Punjab government threatened to change the direction of the rising graph, so close to the general elections. It takes a long arduous journey to build and a minor tremor to demolish the whole lot.

The rioting, carnage and arson did not happen overnight. There was a buildup to it over several days during which an incitement campaign was in progress. The story of alleged blasphemy committed by Sawan Masih was doing the rounds for a few days. The matter reached the local police station, Sawan was apprehended and a first information report, or FIR, was registered. That should have been the end of the matter, leaving it to the law to take its course.

A similar incident of alleged desecration of the Holy Quran was triggered in 2009 in Gojra, which later proved to be false. Several people lost their lives and many houses were burnt down by charged mobs that could not be controlled by the ill-equipped, ill-trained and outnumbered police personnel. Since then, around 14 other incidents of religious incitement of various magnitudes have been reported in several parts of the country. By now, the perception and the sensitivity of such events should have been clear to the law enforcement agencies with a standard operating procedure in place to anticipate such occurrences and nip them in the bud. However, it did not happen. 

The hate campaign in Joesph Colony kept simmering and then exploded. The culprit was already behind bars and under investigation, yet the mob assumed the role of judge and executer, and proceeded to punish the entire locality. The local administration failed to assess the gravity of the situation, or to take appropriate measures to contain and diffuse it, despite ample warning. There was no contingency plan.

When confronted with charged rioters, the local police that was not trained in riot control went on the back foot and advised the residents to evacuate the area in order to save their lives. Perhaps, they knew what was coming and thus abandoned their duty of protecting the lives and properties of the citizens. The field was left wide open for looting and burning.

When the residents returned the following day, their houses had been torched and the contents had been taken away or destroyed, leaving them with no personal belongings, documents or shelter. The police had stood aside helplessly as silent spectators. No orders came from above, no reinforcements were sent to the local police and no assistance was requisitioned from the rangers or the army to avert an ugly situation.

Joseph Colony is situated on land owned by the Lahore Municipal Corporation. It comprises unplanned shanty houses constructed by homeless and poor people of the Christian community that earn their living by manual labour and have made the area their communal living over decades. It is located in the heart of an industrial area where the land is very valuable. The incident is reported to have originated from a personal altercation between two people (one Muslim and the other Christian) that was transformed into blasphemy allegedly with ulterior motives.

The residents tell tales of land mafia interested in occupying the land for industrial purposes. Such ghettos in densely populated prime land are common targets of vested interests. Many such illegally occupied localities are often evacuated by the government functionaries by employing force. This case assumed a high profile and became a national scar, as the victims were the minority Christian community. It became grotesque as the Muslim neighbours took the law in their own hands and desecrated the Christian places of worship and their religious relics.

The usual political blame game commenced without ascertaining the real facts. The hyperactive Chief Minister sprang into action with damage control and was met with a hostile reception by the aggrieved residents during his visit to the locality. The DCO established a field camp and immediate relief of food and shelter were provided with a minimum of delay. Dozens of arrests were made of rioters, out of which 54 have been identified from the video footings awaiting further legal action.

Given the Chief Minister’s past record, the rehabilitation process will no doubt progress on a fast track and some wounds will be healed. However, the administration was exposed for its weakness.

In addition, one has to wait and see whether the cases of the culprits will be pursued and sentences awarded, and the PML-N will be able to win back its vote bank or the whole saga will be forgotten once the limelight of the media fades.

The silver lining has been the maturity exhibited across-the-board. Instead of resisting the blasphemy law that could not be repealed, the flaws in its implementation have been recognised and highlighted. The Christian leaders of various factions got together as did the Muslim ulema of various schools of thought to condemn the riots, express solidarity with the residents and to plead for calm without any religious prejudice. The focus stayed with the miseries of the displaced persons and the injustice meted out to the poor minority.

The peaceful protests staged by the Christian community in several cities in sympathy with the victims raised voices for equal rights as citizens of Pakistan. The media played its part in creating the awareness. It seems that five years of democracy has given a voice to the people by way of freedom of expression and owning the responsibility of events at all levels and an urge to right the wrongs.    

The writer is an engineer and an entrepreneur.  Email: k.a.k786@hotmail.com