The Vigilante State

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Lazar Masih lies motionless on a bed at the Combined Military Hospital (CMH), Rawalpindi, struggling to stay alive. His 73-year-old frail body was a site of extreme brutality by a frenzied crowd of people, motivated by misplaced sentiments of religious fanaticism. Unfortunately, Lazar’s survival is a concern shared only by his family rather than the state which remains ineffectual to combat the rising incidence of vigilantism.

Around 6 am on May 25, 2024, the Mujahid Colony, situated in the northwest city of Sargodha, Punjab, almost 186 km from Lahore, woke up to an announcement blaring from the local mosque to congregate outside Lazar’s factory to avenge the alleged burning of the Quran by him. Within a short span, a small agitated group had gathered outside Lazar Masih’s factory accusing him of blasphemy.

Apart from the three Christian families, one of whom is Lazar Masih, the Mujahid Colony is predominantly a Muslim area and could not be accredited with a tranquil Christian-Muslim relations. According to the residents’ accounts recorded by a team led by the president of the Cecil & Iris Chaudhry Foundation (CICF), Ms Michelle Chaudhry, the blasphemy charges brought up against Lazar Masih (also known as Nazir Masih) were a consequence of a festering resentment between Lazar’s family and the local Muslim community over a drainage issue. Lazar’s nephew, Irfan Gill confirmed that the former’s grandsons were often drawn into a fight by the local Muslims over the same issue. Other accounts recorded in the report, point to an altogether different factor, suggesting the hostility emerged from the difference in the financial standing between the Muslims and Lazar’s family.

After spending an extended period in the United Arab Emirates, Lazar, a father of four, returned to Pakistan six years ago to set up a small shoe factory close to the Mujahid Colony, Sargodha. His booming business did not go well with the not-too-tolerant Muslim neighbours, waiting for an opportunity to provoke a fight.

On May 22, 2024, three days prior to the incident of May 25, 2024, the provocation was dispensed by Ayub, a neighbour working as a dairyman. Two of Lazar’s grandsons somehow got involved into a fight with Ayub and ended up going to the local police station to file a complaint against the dairyman.

Three days later, the Mujahid Colony’s loudspeakers were resounding with charges of blasphemy against Lazar Masih, who had allegedly burnt pages of the Holy Quran. Realising the gravity of what could lead into a life threatening situation for Lazar Masih, a member of another Christian family called the police emergency helpline.

By the time the police arrived outside Lazar Masih’s factory, a crowd of over a thousand had already gathered, angrily demanding the police to turn over the accused to them. “As compared to the crowd, the police were small in number,” said Irfan Gill, Lazar’s nephew.

As evidence, someone from the crowd handed a burnt Quran to the police, claiming that Lazar Masih had picked it from the mosque to burn it in front of his factory. As the mob grew larger, the police, anticipating danger, quickly called for reinforcements. But by the time they arrived, the mob had already set fire to Lazar’s factory and destroyed his house.

Though the District Police Officer (DPO) rescued Lazar Masih’s family, he was unable to rescue Lazar Masih from the merciless crowd. In fact, instead of coming down heavily on the crowd, the police ceded to the crowd’s demand of handing over Lazar Masih.

The 73-year-old was dragged on the street, violently beaten, kicked and tortured by a crowd revelling in its barbarity. Somehow, in the midst of what could only be described as heathen barbarism, an ambulance service was called to rescue Lazar. The mob attacked the ambulance forcing the driver to flee. The special police squad arrived to take Lazar to the DHQ Hospital, but there seemed to be no let up to the crowd’s madness as it followed his mangled body to surround the hospital. From there the security agencies transferred him to CMH Sargodha and finally brought to be treated at CMH, Rawalpindi. “His condition is critical from multiple head injuries,” confirmed Ms Michelle Chaudhry, president of the CICF.

His nephew, Irfan Gill, believed the incident was premeditated to specifically target Lazar’s factory. After the imposition of Section 144, nearly all the Christian residents of the area have fled to safe locations.

For security reasons the whereabouts of Lazar’s wife, daughters in law, and grandchildren are not known who are in protective custody at an unknown location.

Lazar Masih has been charged under FIR # SGD-URA-005256 with offences under Sections 295 A and B of the Pakistan Penal Code and, surprisingly, under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997. The complainant in the FIR is a local councillor.

Meanwhile, the police filed FIR # SGD-URA-005257 against 44 named individuals and 450 unnamed persons, including 35-40 women, for their involvement in instigating mob violence.

 

Shehar Bano Khan
Shehar Bano Khan
The writer is a senior journalist and writer who formerly worked for Friday Times, Frontier Post and the Dawn. She is currently associated with The Scoop as Consulting Editor.

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