By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
On January 11, 2021, a four-year-old Christian girl Eshal was abducted, raped and killed in Malkhanwala village in Waras Pura tehsil (revenue unit) of Faisalabad District.
On January 9, 2021, the dead bodies of two Christian girls were found in a sewer near Makhan Colony in the Kahna area of Lahore. They were abducted and killed by Muhammad Mumtaz and Naeem when the girls refused to convert to Islam.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), Punjab has already recorded three incidents of attacks on religious minorities resulting in three deaths in 2021, so far (data till February 14).
During 2020, there was a considerable increase in incidents of the persecution of minorities in comparison to previous year. At least 37 such incidents were recorded, resulting in six deaths and 12 persons injured in Punjab in 2020, as against seven incidents in 2019. No casualty was reported in 2019.
Scores of women from minorities were forcibly converted to Islam. During an online consultation on “Forced conversion complaints and religious freedom” organized on November 28, 2020, by the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), a Pakistan-based organisation, CSJ Director Peter Jacob noted that there had been a rise in incidents of forced conversion of women, and specifically of underage girls from the religious minority communities.
Moreover, minorities are also bearing the brunt of the ‘blasphemy law’. On February 4, 2021, CSJ released data for incidents between 1987 and December 2020, which showed that at least 1,855 people had been charged with offences related to religion, Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), (blasphemy against the Holy Quran) was introduced in 1982, and Section 295-C, PPC (desecration against Prophet Muhammad) in 1986. Punjab has had the most blasphemy complaints (76 per cent of all complaints), followed by Sindh (19 per cent). As of December 2020, Punjab’s prisons were holding 337 prisoners for blasphemy, both those convicted and those awaiting trial. The largest number of inmates are in the Lahore district jail (60). Some of the prominent blasphemy-linked incidents in Punjab in 2020 include:
September 8, 2020: A Sessions Court in Lahore, Punjab, sentenced a Christian man, Asif Pervaiz, to death, after convicting him of sending text messages containing “blasphemous content.” The court order issued by Additional Sessions Judge Mansoor Ahmad Qureshi added that Pervaiz would first serve a three-year prison term for “misusing” his phone to send the derogatory text message, and then “he shall be hanged by his neck till his death.” He was also fined PKR 50,000. Asif Pervaiz has been in custody since 2013, fighting blasphemy charges that were levelled against him by the supervisor of the garment factory he once worked at. The supervisor had accused him of sending derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad to him in a text message. Following the sentence, Asif’s lawyer, Siaf-ul-Malook, however, stated, “He [Asif] denied the allegations and said that this man was trying to get him to convert to Islam.”August 23, 2020: Several individuals lodged separate complaints for “blasphemy” against journalist and human rights activist, Marvi Sirmed in different parts of the country, including Lahore (in Police Stations of Ravi Road, Faisal Town and Garden Town) and Jhang (Kotwali Police Station) in Punjab Province; Karachi, in Sindh Province; and Islamabad with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). According to the information received, on August 22, 2020, Sirmed allegedly posted a satirical Tweet from her personal account, referring to the many enforced disappearances of human rights defenders and government critics in Balochistan Province, Pakistan.August 13, 2020: Police filed a case under the blasphemy laws against actor Saba Qamar and singer Bilal Saeed, for shooting a music video inside Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore, Punjab Province. The case was registered at the Akbari Police Station of Lahore on the complaint of advocate Farhat Manzoor. Manzoor filed the complaint following the release of a clip of the video on August 8. Both Qamar and Saeed have published statements apologizing on their respective social media accounts.
Adding more weaponry to the armoury of religious bigots, the Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill 2020 on July 22, 2020. The law makes the publication of objectionable material punishable by a maximum of five years in prison and up to PKR 500,000 fine. In its editorial of July 29, 2020, Dawn noted,
The new law can justifiably be criticised for being superfluous and capable of stoking more religious intolerance, which this country can well do without.
Earlier, on July 24, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in a release asserted that HRCP was
…appalled at recent developments that are set to further whittle down space for freedom of intellectual thought, enquiry and expression… There is also ample reason to expect that Section 3(f) of the new Act will be used to target religious minorities and sects… The Commission urges the Punjab government to heed its concerns and roll back such measures before they backfire.
Meanwhile, terrorism-linked fatalities continued to decline in Punjab, as in the rest of the country. Fatalities fell from 28 (12 civilians, nine Security Force, SF, personnel and seven terrorists) in 2019 to 16 in 2020 (three civilians and 13 terrorists). At peak, there 392 overall fatalities in Punjab in 2009. A high of 296 civilian fatalities was recorded in 2010.
However, the growing presence of religious extremists/fundamentalists and the state’s encouragement of such elements, is worrisome. These elements have the potential to provide a breeding ground for more violent and terrorist formations.
Moreover, there are no signs of genuine efforts to tighten the grip against terrorist groups such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the front organisation of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) – the ‘foreign oriented’ terrorist groupings that have strong bases in the Province. The leadership elements of these outfits continue to comfortable enjoy state hospitality, despite being convicted in several terrorism-related cases – the convictions primarily forced by international and particularly Financial Action Task Force (FATF) pressure. JuD chief Hafiz Saeed who was officially arrested in July 2019, and should have been servicing his sentence in jail, continues to live at his Johar Town house in Lahore, from where he continues to freely run his terrorist organisation. Most recently, on December 25, 2020, an Anti-Terrorism Court sentenced Hafiz Saeed to 15 years and six months imprisonment, without significant impact on his living conditions. Similarly, JeM chief Masood Azhar, who is facing several cases of terrorist funding, lives in a “safe place” in his native town – Bahawalpur. All proof enough to further establish that the arrests and sentences are superficial and only intended to bring Pakistan out of Financial Action Task Force’s ‘grey list’.
Meanwhile, the global terrorist Islamic State (Daesh) remains a challenge. On May 17, 2020, Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) personnel killed four Daesh terrorists, while another three managed to escape during a security operation carried out near Azam Chowk in Bahawalpur city (Bahawalpur District). The CTD spokesperson confirmed that the terrorists were planning to carry out an attack at a religious minority’s place of worship.
Former Minister of Interior, Senator Rehman Malik, in his column in The Nation on September 24, 2020, wrote,
I have been watching the fast growth of Daesh in the region and I was the first one who pointed out the presence of ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State], but successive governments have been refusing to accept its presence just as a policy. In fact, I have always been advocating that Daesh is very much in Pakistan. The Daesh handlers recruited over 80 thousand Pakistanis mostly from south Punjab.
Despite Prime Minister Imran Khan’s false claim of a safe Pakistan for all minorities in ‘Naya Pakistan’, persecution of religious minorities continues in Punjab and across Pakistan. The growing radicalisation which is encouraged by the Government has undermined the achievements reflected in declining terrorism-linked fatalities and incidents. Rising extremism, moreover, threatens future the security in the province and the country.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management