How can we understand mass violence, seemingly spontaneous but decidedly venomous in creating an atmosphere of fear and suspicion? By what means can we, as citizens of cities where such violence breaks out, establish lines of responsibility, with the aim of avoiding it in the future? Perhaps, there cannot be a definitive answer to either question but it is important to try. We, as members of a citizen’s commission, have tried to investigate the Joseph Colony burnings beyond media representation to understand and contest some of the transformations taking place in our city, Lahore. For this purpose, we made several visits to the colony and its neighbouring mohallas from where the attackers allegedly came, during the months of March and April 2013.
On Friday, March 8, a crowd of close to 50 to 100 people gathered in front of Joseph Colony asking for Sawan, a young man who lived there with his family, to be handed over. Sawan had apparently committed blasphemy and the crowd wanted to teach him a lesson. Sawan’s family claimed that he was not in the house. Chheeko (Shafiq), a local strongman (and some claim small-time drug dealer), who was leading the call for Sawan’s beating was known to Sawan’s family and lived close by in Sheikhabad mohalla. Shafiq claimed that Imran, a Muslim who owned a shop facing Sawan’s billiard parlour, had heard Sawan commit blasphemy and they fought about this issue. Sawan’s family, neighbours and the only Muslim lady who resided in Joseph Colony until recently, all pleaded with Shafiq to let the matter rest. Some suggested that he was drunk and they could smell alcohol on his breath.
Through Friday morning, tension built up in the neighbourhood. According to some, by afternoon, posters proclaiming death to those insulting the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) were put up. Around 2.30pm, the police went from house to house, ordering people to leave right away. In a narrative resonant of Partition experiences, people told us of the panic this created. Many claimed to have left without putting dupattas or shoes on properly. Police pressure meant that they were unable to collect their belongings, jewellery, cash, but also the all-important paper work that will take an age to collect again: ID Cards, degrees and deeds. Moreover, the loss of dowries, long and patiently collected, was an immense blow to family finances, and invariably mentioned by those we spoke to. As soon as the residents left, the colony witnessed an organised campaign of looting.
On Saturday afternoon, a crowd gathered in front of Sawan’s house again and set the colony alight. Setting a single house, let alone a colony, alight is not a simple matter. These were concrete houses, often with wooden doors and windows, but without enough combustible material to catch fire just by the throwing of a matchstick. Residents who had dared to stay close to keep an eye on their homes saw bottles of chemicals used for the arson. The burning has been presented as the work of a frenzied crowd but this was clearly a planned attack.
In the early days of our investigation, denizens of Joseph Colony laid equal blame on the ‘karkhana walas’, whose workshops surround the colony, and members of Shiekhabad. The method and extent of burnings spoke of finances, planning and influence with the local police. People asked why did the police not arrest Shafiq on the first day, when he started stirring up trouble? Why did they empty the colony and then wait around while it was looted? And why, most importantly, did they wait around while the colony was being burnt one whole day after Shafiq’s performance in front of Sawan’s house?
Why indeed? The alleged motive among the karkhana walas, some of whom are also believed to be the only ones in the neighbourhood to have enough say in police behaviour, was to vacate this property to use it for building bigger warehouses. Certainly, the finances, planning and employment of local roughs such as Shafiq, suggest that local suspicion may be valid, although it remains to be seen who specifically among the karkhana owners is responsible. The name karkhana itself is misleading for what are essentially large courtyards with men banging metal to flatten it.
But what of Sheikhabad? Why did its inhabitants take on a project designed by others? There is the easier economic argument: Joseph Colony is a poor neighbourhood but Sheikhabad is even poorer. The vast majority of Sheikhabad men are day labourers in the karkhanas and subject to employment uncertainty. Joseph Colony inhabitants tend to be municipal cleaners with steady jobs and possibilities for private work in their ‘jurisdiction’. They have benefitted from scholarships and opportunities provided by local and international church organisations. So, one can make an argument about the economic uncertainty in Sheikhabad obliging some among them to stoop to burning their neighbours’ houses if paid for it. However, that would be an incomplete argument because it ignores the strength of feeling behind the idea of blasphemy.
During our admittedly limited interaction with members of Sheikhabad mohalla (we spent more time in Joseph Colony), it was clear that three weeks after the burning, nobody claimed that it had been a good idea. This may have been reinforced by the heavy media presence condemning the act soon after. However, there seemed to be some vocal proponents of the view that Sawan deserved punishment. That there was no proof that Sawan had ever uttered any insults, or even that Sawan or Imran had a fight led to some pause for thought —but not too much. Some like Shafiq’s parents, who we also met briefly, presented their thuggish son as a martyr to the cause of Islam, interestingly while not categorically denying his drug dealing in response to a direct question from us. The general sentiment seemed to be that punishment should have been individual but not collective. Nevertheless, punishment there had to be.
Here, we would like to establish one key issue: however strong, feelings about the offence of blasphemy would not have resulted in burning the colony without manipulation by other interests. A complex interplay of class, property and electoral interests came together to translate a religious sentiment into arson. The picture of ‘illiterate masses’ prone to illogical bursts of violence and uncontrollable religious passions is ultimately a comforting myth that helps establish the superiority of the elite. It is this myth that the karkhana walas and other plotters of the Joseph Colony atrocities put to good use.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2013.
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