A woman bowed her head and folded her hands before an idol as she prayed for the protection of her family and neighbours at the Sacho Satram Dham temple in Ghotki.
Her prayers for protection were especially fervent since what happened on September 15. The temple had witnessed rioting precipitated by an allegation of blasphemy against a Hindu man who owned a school on the nearby Devri Road. Masked men had ransacked the temple, damaged its idols and left cracks in the blue and green walls.
“I was at the temple on Sunday morning when I saw 50 people with wooden sticks and rocks marching towards it,” said Kailash Kapoor, a volunteer at the Sacho Satram Dham temple.
“There were three of us. We were really scared and didn’t know what to do so we hid inside the temple.” The men desecrated our idols and broke the glass door at the entrance, he added.
The violence broke a history of peaceful coexistence for the Hindus and Muslims of Ghotki, a district of 1.6 million, many of whom are followers of the temple’s saint, Satramdas Sahid, who represents peace and tranquility. He is revered in Ghotki, his birthplace.
“We have never seen such violence in Ghotki before,” Kapoor remarked. The situation has improved since and the police and Rangers have been deployed in different parts of the district, he said. “The law enforcers make us feel safe for now but things can never go back to as they were.”
The temple was targeted after the school even though there is no link between the two other than the school’s owner being a Hindu. “We don’t know what happened with the person accused of blasphemy,” said a community leader, Mukhi Kika Ram. “We are not in touch with him but the way the riots broke out is condemnable.”
The masked men had also vandalised the Devri Road school, broke furniture in the classrooms and ransacked the building. A mob spread into the Ladies Market to break into shops, steal money and equipment. Others blocked the National Highway, preventing anyone from entering the city.
Just a day earlier, on September 14, a video was shared on social media. In it, a first-year Intermediate student claimed that the owner of his school, Sindh Public Higher Secondary School, has blasphemed against the Holy Prophet (pbuh).
The teenager and his father are surrounded by media persons in the video as the student speaks. A local journalist then shared the video, leading to an uproar among right-wing parties.
Jamaat Ahle Sunnat’s Mufti Adul Karim Sayeedi, a leader of a madrassa, said that his party had registered a blasphemy case against the school owner under Section 295-C of the PPC. The law, which was passed by Parliament in 1986, considers the use of derogatory remarks against the Holy Prophet (pbuh) as a criminal offence.
The police assured them that they would arrest the professor by 5pm the next day (September 15). The riots broke out the night the case was registered.
“We have no connection to the rioters,” Mufti Sayeedi said. “The people who were rioting came all of a sudden. We don’t know who they were.”
Three separate cases were registered against the rioters, for blocking the highway, ransacking the school and temple and robbing shops. The FIRs have been registered at the Ghotki A-Section police station with the State as the complainant. The FIRs invoke sections 295 (defiling a place of worship), 147 (rioting) and 149 (unlawful assembly) of the Pakistan Penal Code.
More than 45 people have been named in the case. The police have arrested eight people, and taken physical remand.
“This is the first time that a blasphemy case has been filed against people who desecrated a temple,” said Veerji Kohli, special assistant on human rights to the Sindh chief minister, while speaking to SAMAA Digital.
“Members of our party [PPP] stood with our Hindu brothers to protect the temple from the rioters,” he said. “We wanted to show that we support our religious minorities and don’t want them living in fear.” All places of worships deserve equal respect, he added.
The police are investigating the exchange between the teacher and the students, according to Ghotki SSP Farrukh Lanjar.
There were more than 30 first-year students in the class, of which 10 have recorded their statements. Eight of them are Hindus and two of them are Muslims (not including the Muslim student on whose complaint the case was registered).
According to their statements, they were studying a poem, when the school’s owner, who was on his routine checks, entered the class and asked the teacher to change the lesson. It was during this exchange that he allegedly made the offensive statement.
Gurdas Ram, who works at the school, was taking the class during this time. Ram and another teacher, Sharif Khawar, have recorded their statements. Khawar told the police that he did not know what happened in the classroom and only knows what the student told him.
SAMAA Digital could not independently confirm this as the school has been closed and staff couldn’t be reached for comment.
Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah had taken notice of the riots and paramilitary troops and police were immediately deployed in the city. For four days, the Rangers kept monitoring movement and the city continued to reel from the aftereffects of the violence. The city’s condition had become such that even a man’s attempt to steal the UPS of a mosque created a ripple of fear and many people didn’t leave their homes in reaction. The Rangers were deployed outside the mosque to ensure its security.
A meeting was held between Hindu representatives, Muslim clerics, Rangers and the police in which they both condemned the case and the riots. They agreed to work together to restore peace.
Allah Warayo Bozdar is a Ghotki-based journalist.