KARACHI: The Hindu community in Ghotki finally breathed a sigh of relief as political and religious leaders sat down in the Sacho Satram Das temple on Sunday night and assured them of their full support in the wake of protests that erupted following blasphemy allegations against a school owner. The temple had been vandalised earlier in the day, as had been five shops owned by members of the Hindu community, besides a private school that was set alight.
The situation arose when hundreds of angry protesters took to the streets in Ghotki after Notan Lal, who owns the Sindh Public School, was accused of passing blasphemous remarks by a student.
Police registered an FIR against Notan Lal and arrested him on Sunday following the protests, road blockages and riots in Ghotki city and its adjacent small towns. For the better part of the day, the law enforcers were unable to control the situation, which only calmed when the protesters dispersed later in the evening.
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The main protest, which attacked the Sindh Public School (SPS), where the incident reportedly occurred, was allegedly led by Mian Mithoo's elder brother, Mian Aslam. Mian Mithoo has in the past been accused of facilitating forced conversions of Hindu girls in the region. For his part, Mian Mithoo told The Express Tribune that he knew nothing about the incident.
Meanwhile, scores of protesters vandalised the Sacho Satram Mandir located in the city centre. At least five shops located in Jilani Market were looted during the riots.
A teacher from Ghotki, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Express Tribune that a student of the SPS, Muhammad Ihtisham, had complained to his father that the school owner, Notan Lal, had allegedly passed derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
In a video that went viral on Sunday, Ihtisham said that he had complained to other teachers about the remarks but he was told to keep quiet. "I then approached my family," he said. On Saturday, protesters gathered at the A-Section Police Station and demanded the police to register an FIR against Lal. According to the FIR, a copy of which is available with The Express Tribune, it was registered late on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, the city administration and law enforcers seemingly remained indifferent and failed to provide security to the temple or disperse the protesters. Thousands of supporters of the Mian brothers held a sit-in on the main roads and marched towards the school.
The protesters reportedly threatened Hindu families, who remained confined to their homes. "We even asked our kids not to cry," a member of the Hindu community told The Express Tribune. "It was a nightmare. We are in a mental trauma and not sure if we can move out freely," he said, adding that the protesters were roaming in the streets, shouting slogans against them and their religion.
In one of the videos that went viral on Sunday following the riots, Mian Aslam is seen to be leading the protest. But Mian Mithoo, a former member of the National Assembly, denied any involvement. "I did not lead the protest," he told The Express Tribune. "I was in Ubaro in a meeting," he explained, adding that he was unaware of the situation in Ghotki. "I don't have any idea. I just heard someone [a Hindu] passed comments against our Prophet."
As the events unfolded, civil society activists and political leaders took to social media and demanded the Sindh government and law enforcement agencies to ensure security for the Hindu community living across the district.
Sikandar Ali Hullio, a civil society activist who first shared details of the incident on social media, told The Express Tribune that the whole district was held hostage by supporters of a particular religious group. "These incidents augment the sense of deprivation among the minority communities, who have been living peacefully in Sindh for many centuries," he said.
Call for calm
In the midst of it all, workers and supporters of the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, led by Maulana Rashid Soomro, held a peace march in the city and asked the people to remain peaceful as the police were investigating the matter.
In a video message, Soomro instructed his supporters not to take the law into their hands. "The man allegedly involved in blasphemy should immediately be arrested and he should be punished accordingly if found guilty," he said. "Islam doesn't allow anyone to damage properties and harm persons belonging to minority groups," he said, appealing to his supporters to support the district administration.
Speaking to The Express Tribune, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz's MNA Kheal Das Kohistani said that such incidents disturb religious harmony in Sindh. He also contacted Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah, asking him to ensure security for the worship places of the Hindu community.
Kohistani, on behalf of his community elders, appreciated the role of Maulana Rashid Soomro of JUI-F. "There is a need to form district-wise [religious] peace committees," suggested Kohistani, adding that representatives from all religious groups should be included so they can control the situation if there is any religious issue. "These kinds of riot will defame our country's image."
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Later in the evening, Sindh Information Minister Saeed Ghani and Local Government Minister Nasir Hussain Shah reached Ghotki, where they met leaders of the Hindu community. The two ministers, flanked by local political and religious leaders visited the Sacho Satram Das temple and assured the Hindu community of their full support. They even announced the government will compensate for the damage caused to the temple. "The situation is under control," Ghani told The Express Tribune. "The perpetrators will be brought to justice."
According to Ghotki SSP Dr Farrukh Lanjhar, the person nominated in the FIR has been arrested and shifted to an unknown place. He said that the investigation was underway, adding that swift action will be taken against those involved in damaging school buildings, temple and properties of Hindus.
When contacted by The Express Tribune, Sukkur AIG Dr Jameel Ahmed said that the situation had been brought under control, while the police would start their investigation from today.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 16th, 2019.