Five days after the torching down of the chipboard factory and looting of workers’ houses and offices, about four kilometres from Jhelum on G.T. Road, by a violent mob, the smoke was still billowing from its warehouse and fire-fighting vehicles were still at work.
On November 20, some workers of the chipboard factory, owned by a local from the Ahmadi community, alleged that the factory’s security officer Qamar Ahmad Tahir (also an Ahmadi) had burnt copies of the Holy Quran in the furnace.
According to the First Information Report (FIR), complainant Basharat Husain, a driver with the factory for almost four years, saw that paper trash packed in sacks came on a vehicle and the security in-charge ordered two workers to burn it in the furnace. While it was being thrown in the furnace, the workers noticed Quranic pages in it. The situation led to an argument and the police had to be called in. Following which the FIR was lodged.
By evening, announcements were made from local mosques that the owner and the workers had burnt the Quran. Soon, outrage spread in the nearby villages. Following this, people not only from the vicinity but nearby villages gathered as a mob and set ablaze the chipboard factory. The houses and the offices of the factory were destroyed, looted and burnt.
The government managed to block the news on national television channels. The factory is under the control of administration ever since and the media has not been allowed to visit the area, thus blocking any kind of coverage that could expose the horrifying scenes of loot, plunder and burning of the factory.
“We saw people looting the offices and residences. They were igniting fire with air freshener sprays and taking away valuables including laptops along with them,” says a local administrator who was injured while stopping the mob. “It was an awful scene but our priority was to save people stuck inside. An Ahmadi young man was injured while snatching a child from the mob’s custody and escaped from the rear side.”
A day later, the situation became volatile again after another angry mob in Kala Gojran, a nearby town about a kilometre from the factory, attacked the Ahmadi worship place (the law of the land forbids the Ahmadis from calling their place of worship as ‘Masjid’) and set ablaze the valuables there.
Don’t miss: Jhelum — insult to human dignity
A video available with TNS shows people setting things on fire in the worship place with a policeman standing quietly and watching rather than taking any action. Almost 24 hours after the whole episode, the Punjab Chief Minister ordered to take action against the culprits.
“Police received a call on Rescue 15 around 4.30pm about the alleged blasphemy. We quickly took the material in custody and arrested the accused. Later, by 7.30 pm we heard around 1,500 people from nearby villages had gathered at the main road and were planning to attack the factory with batons in their hands,” District Police Officer Mujahid Akbar tells TNS.
“I did not know the factory was owned by an Ahmadi. After receiving information about the protest, I went with some policemen to the spot but the situation was violent and our first priority was to save people present in the factory,” he says, adding, “We rescued around 15 people from the factory including women and children from the rear side and then started dealing with the protestors.”
The DPO says announcements were made in the nearby villages urging people to gather outside the factory and possibility of any mischief cannot be ignored. He says the police have identified around 70 people involved in the attack and many of them have been arrested. “A case of terrorism has been lodged against them.”
The police also called Pakistan Army from the nearby Jhelum Cantt on the evening of November 20. Interestingly, Jhelum, one of the smallest districts of Punjab, has only 450 operational force for its 11 police stations, says the DPO. “Of these, on that particular day, 150 police personnel were on another assignment in Chakwal district.” He didn’t say that the next day the chief minister Punjab was supposed to be in Chakwal.
The situation in the three villages, from where the police says the mob came, has remained tense the whole week. In Kala Gojran, three vehicles of Pakistan Rangers were guarding the damaged worship place.
The locals in the villages declined to talk on the issue. “It is very unjust and unfair. A few Ahmadi families have been living in this area for many decades and there has never been any issue before,” says Dilawar Hussain, a 60-year-old man who lives in the same street. “The protesters were in huge number and the police did not take any action.”
In the village Raathian, adjacent to the factory where a sizeable number of workers from this factory live, was total empty. Many houses were locked while the others were reluctant to open the doors despite repeated knocks. “People have fled away as the police are raiding the houses for the past three days,” an old woman tells TNS from a rooftop.
Salimuddin, spokesperson of Ahmadiyya community, says, “It was an attempt to burn innocent Ahmadis alive over the vicious allegation of blasphemy of the Holy Quran. No Ahmadi can ever contemplate the slightest disrespect to the Holy Quran.” He suspects mischief behind this incident to persecute the community.
“Thereafter, without any further enquiry, announcements were made on loudspeakers in mosques and a violent mob was formed to attack the factory. The fire has destroyed 70 per cent of the factory while eight vehicles parked inside were also set on fire,” says Salimuddin.
He demands fair investigations into both the incidents — the allegation of blasphemy and the attack on the factory. He says the person accused of blasphemy is arrested and now the police should apprehend all people and mullahs involved in the attacks and make sure they are also sentenced rather than freed.
Members of the Ahmadiyya community suspect that the incident was ‘systemically run’ in term of sequence of incidents. Last year in July, during Ramzan, three Ahmadi females were burnt alive by an enraged mob over baseless allegation of blasphemy of the Holy Ka’aba in Gujranwala. Subsequent investigations proved the allegation entirely false and a result of personal animosity.
Mob violence after provocative announcements from local mosques on mere allegations of blasphemy has become a dangerous trend amid cowardly and delayed actions by the law enforcement agencies. This vandalism intensifies when allegations are levelled against people belonging to religious minorities in particular.
I.A. Rehman, Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, sees a set pattern in these incidents for the past many years. “People use these allegations to settle personal scores, persecute marginalised sections and for certain vested interests,” he says. “The state seems to have failed in stopping this vandalism. And now the police have failed to an extent that they have had to call the army or paramilitary troops to control such situations.”
Rehman says with the passage of time an environment has been created and people can react to such allegations even on hearsay. “Until and unless the state changes its policies to improve the level of tolerance and change its orientation regarding religion, things will not start turning better.”