The recent harrowing incident in Mardan where a student was lynched over allegations of blasphemy has once again triggered bouts of soul searching in Pakistan. There is no one explanation for the obvious increase in bigotry in Pakistani society, but amidst all the pronouncements of “what is happening to us” it may perhaps be insightful to take the prosaic route and explore facts related to cases of religiously-motivated violence.
There is no database to refer to here. The data made public on such crimes by the police lacks a high level of detail. However, the data available from reports of human rights organisations (national and international) leads to one very clear conclusion. Notwithstanding this recent incident, blasphemy is overwhelmingly an issue of eight to 10 districts of northern Punjab. More than three-fourths (over 75 percent) of registered cases are in these districts, with the remaining spread over northern KP (again, just three or four districts) and in two cities of Sindh (Karachi and Hyderabad). Southern Punjab and southern KP do not feature significantly in this data. Nor does rural Sindh or Gilgit-Baltistan, although there have been some isolated incidents in the latter. Balochistan does not figure at all. More than half of all cases are registered against Muslims.
Now let’s look at instances of inter-religious outbreaks of mob violence. Again, the published data is sketchy, but from what is available, the same pattern emerges — most cases are in northern Punjab and the two big cities of Sindh. The representation of northern KP diminishes here — perhaps because the province has a relatively smaller proportion of religious minorities in its population anyway.
Sectarian crime has a different pattern altogether. More often than not, it features strikes against a particular sect, the Shia community, where either a place of worship is attacked or prominent members of the community are targeted for assassination. It is rare for these strikes to develop into cross-community riots, although that has been known to happen, most notably in Gilgit-Baltistan. But for the most part, these are terrorist acts which do not lead to mob violence.
Allegations of blasphemy almost always lead to the fear of mob mobilisation. Attacks on religious minorities, which in case of the Christian community in particular, are often based on blasphemy allegations, can also translate into mob violence very fast. But again, this tends to happen most often in the areas identified earlier. These areas are relatively more prosperous compared to the ones that don’t figure in blasphemy statistics.
So what is going on in the prosperous parts of Punjab and, to a lesser extent, KP, and the two richest cities of Sindh?
There is, of course, the insidious role of the Pakistani state, which from the beginning has used religious rhetoric to drum up nationalism and promote the idea that a uniform creed applies to all Pakistanis. This effort had only intensified after the breakup of the country in 1971, when the majority population manifestly refused to accept this concept of uniformity. In the 1980s, a venal right-wing dictatorship effectively enacted legislation and manipulated the education system and the media such that the last nail was driven into the coffin of Pakistani pluralism, to the extent that it had existed. Successive democratic governments have been simply fearful of confronting a revitalised religious lobby with considerable street power.
While the above machinations of the state are not restricted by location, their effects are felt more keenly in rapidly growing urban areas and amongst a relatively educated population that reads newspapers or follows electronic media and goes to educational institutions where parts of the curriculum and certain student’s groups reinforce retrogressive views. Resentment over poor service delivery, unfair employment practices and corruption is potent among this population group. Combine all this with population pressure, poor living conditions for new entrants to cities, exposure to criminal gangs, and the frustration of making ends meet without support of an extended family, and you have a lethal cocktail. For certain sections of the society, the frustration and anger just builds up and makes them vulnerable to indoctrination of all sorts. All this is not to say that such forms of violence do not occur outside the defined locations, just that they are more likely to occur here.
The neo-classical view of cities as engines of growth tends to discount the negative sociological features of urbanisation, particularly the longer-term impacts of struggles for control over limited resources like land and water, municipal services, or hearts and minds of the young generation. But we are now learning that these factors are as much a part of the urbanisation process as growth in economic activity.
There are a number of lessons that need to be learnt from recent experiences with mob violence in the country. But perhaps the key one is that the powers-that-be must refrain from fanning the flames that are latent in society in general and amongst the rising middle class in particular. And this needs to be combined with the application of a criminal process to those who take the law into their own hands. We should not wait for the next incident.
The writer is an economist and policy analyst based in Islamabad