Jaranwala town of Pakistan was in the international limelight recently for a ghastly mob attack on Christian minorities of Pakistan on 16 August 2023. The violent mob, comprising hundreds of zealot Muslims, not only torched prominent churches in the locality, it also went on a rampage in the Christian locality ransacking and burning down their homes and looting valuables from these homes. Although, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an Islamist Political Party, has denied its involvement in the incident, several reports pointed out that the violent mob mainly comprised of members of TLP itself. 1
The Cause of Violence
Jaranwala is a small town in Faisalabad district of Punjab province in Pakistan. It has a population of around 1.5 lakh people, out of which a little more than 5000 are believed to be the Christians, who reside in the Christian quarters. The immediate cause of this violence is attributed to an allegation of desecration of several pages of the Holy Quran by two local Christian men. As the rumour of desecration of Holy Quran came to the light, fanatic Muslims started gathering at the site and the situation became volatile with TLP members entering into the fray. They allegedly made “public announcements from mosques” and riled up people and prodded them to reach the site.2 Soon afterwards, the houses of the accused were set on fire and the violent mob went out of control causing damage to several Churches and homes of those belonging to Christian faith.
The frenzied mob not only looted the precious belongings of the Christians in the area, in most of the cases, it set their houses on fire. Fortunately, there was no loss of life, as the members of the minority community sensed the situation in time and ran away leaving all their belongings at home. Although, the immediate cause was stated to be the desecration of Holy Quran, the problem of religious radicalization, and especially violence against the minorities, has taken deep roots in Pakistani society.
Minorities: Second Class Pakistani Citizens
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in its recent report A Breach of Faith: Freedom of religion or belief in 2021/22 categorically states that even after seventy-five years of independence, Pakistan relegates its religious minorities and sects to second-class status.3 Religious minorities in Pakistan regularly confront faith-based violence and discriminatory legislation as well as social prejudice by both state and non-state actors in the country, although Islam per se does not allow violence against non-Muslims. Hamid Mir and Saleem Safi, journalists who run the television shows ‘Capital Talk’ and ‘Jirga’ respectively, quoted a Hadees (sayings of the Prophet), which clearly says that “On the day of final judgment, I’ll fight the person who targets minorities or takes away their rights or takes their belongings without their consent or tortures them.”
By not tackling violence against minorities effectively, Pakistani State stands in violation of a number of international covenants and conventions. The controversial blasphemy laws, which carries death penalty for disrespecting Islam and Prophet Muhammad, are widely used by the Muslim majority against the members of minority communities to settle personal scores. Most of those accused of disrespecting Islam or Prophet Muhammad have so far been lynched by violent Muslim mobs. The annual report of HRCP states that there were 585 registered cases of blasphemy in the country in 2021 and most of it came from Punjab province.4 The nexus between blasphemy-propelled violence and the far-right politics continues unabated.
A number of core international human rights instruments including Universal Declaration of Human Rights, (UDHR) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) recognize people’s right to freedom of religion or faith. These instruments are meant to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Pakistan, despite being the signatory of both these instruments, has quite a poor track-record in the field.
Radicalization of Pakistani Society
Pakistani society has become so fractured and radicalized that incidents like Jaranwala are neither uncommon nor do they shake up the conscience of the people at large. The role of religion in Pakistan is not a settled issue and it greatly impacts the statecraft, the status and rights of various Islamic sects and religious minorities. Due to the complex interplay of historical, social, and political factors, Islam and Islamic ideology remain at the centre of dominant political discourse in Pakistan. The 2022 International Crisis Group (ICG) report underlines the fact that sectarian strife remains a severe challenge to the state of Pakistan and poses a formidable danger to its existence.5
Unlike in the past decades, when Deobandi Sunni groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and its offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, were responsible for much of the violence in the country, the emergence of two distinctly new forces— the Salafi Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP)— have made the extremist landscape quite gloomy and complex. As per the 2023 annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (UCIRF), radical Islamic influence in Pakistan has worsened as violence against religious minorities has increased and groups like TLP have gained popularity.6 Since its rise to prominence in 2017, TLP has been responsible for some of the worst vigilante violence in Pakistan. It is worthwhile to note that in the run up to the 2018 general election, TLP unleased violent terror in the name of anti-blasphemy movement.
The UCIRF 2023 report also underlined that religious minorities in Pakistan were subject to frequent attacks and threats due to accusations over blasphemy, targeted killings, lynchings, mob violence, forced conversions, sexual violence, and desecration of places of worship and cemeteries.7 Members of Shia, Ahmadiya, Christian, Hindu and Sikh communities continue to face threats of persecution because of harsh and discriminatory laws like anti-Ahmadiyya and blasphemy.
Complicity of State Institutions
It is no secret that radical Islamic groups of all hues, have ben patronized by politico-security establishment of Pakistan for short-term gains. These groups are now working hard to introduce revolutionary changes in the socio-political order of Pakistan by actively supporting violent and terrorist activities across the country. Pakistan Army, which claims to follow modern liberal tradition, uses these outfits as strategic assets in the neighbourhood, especially in Afghanistan and India. Over the years, this has enabled a radical constituency in the country that threatens to pose a severe challenge to Pakistani state and aims to convert it into an extremist Wahabi Islamist nation where Shias, Ahmadiyas, Barelvis and other minorities would face the heat of radicalization.
Blaming India to Divert Attention
Pakistan often deliberately brings India into picture whenever unwanted incidents take place in the country. It has been a time-tested tactic of security establishment to deflect the attention from more serious incidents that question the ability and credibility of its institutions. A few days after the horrific incident, a number of mainstream media and social media platforms were buzzing with unsubstantiated information linking Indian intelligence agencies in the case. The mainstream media houses quoted Inspector General (IG) Punjab, Usman Anwar who said that police had the evidence of a foreign conspiracy behind the recent incident in Jaranwala. During a press conference, Mr. Anwar reportedly said “The hostile agencies hatched a well-thought-out and coordinated conspiracy to divert the attention from their country towards Pakistan.”8
Interestingly, On 20 August, TLP’s Shafiq Amini appeared in Saleem Safi’s show “Jirga with Saleem Safi” where he categorically said that Pakistan’s minorities were better placed and luckier (Khushnaseeb) than minorities in India. “At least we shed tears [for our minorities here]”. Look at the neighbouring country; nobody is shedding tears for those being killed in Manipur”, he said. The English Daily The Dawn in its editorial on 21 August had sought to underplay the incident as a pan-South Asian phenomenon and wrote: “It appears that this particular variant of religious extremism is a South Asian peculiarity.”9
The recent attack in Jaranwala only reaffirms the view that Pakistan has failed to transform itself into a modern liberal state with a progressive Islamic vision. The political atmosphere in Pakistan, at present, is such that every political party uses Islam either for gaining legitimacy by pandering to the religious right-wing forces in one way or the other. TLP uses the issue of blasphemy to mobilize Muslims and strengthen its position in Pakistani society and politics. It has entered the political fray already and had a good electoral show in the last elections by demonstrating its resolve to protect Islam and Quran.
While the Jaranwala incident has been condemned by people across the country including the top political leadership, the Army Chief and TLP, and some symbolic action has been taken against the perpetrators of the violence, the fact remains that such incidents point towards a deep and abiding animus against the minority communities in Pakistan. There is no doubt that it is the result of the connivance between the elites in Pakistan and the religious right to both strengthen and leverage the Islamic sensibilities of the people in the country over the years. While there is a realization at certain levels that this has led to internal security challenges and soiled Pakistan’s image at the global level, no concrete action has been taken to change the situation.
Dr Ashish Shukla is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed here are his own.