Outcome of Christian-Muslim unrest in Bheel Nagar, Nazareth Colony, Rahim Yar Khan and emerging issues
(report by Fr. Gulshan Barkat)
On 24th June 2013, the elders of Bheel Nagar were invited for a meeting at the residence of Mr. Akbar Sardar in Bheel Nagar. This meeting was called by Fr. Gulshan Barkat OMI, in his capacity as a member of the locality, who had been with the Christians of Bheel Nagar as the unrest took place.
The meeting was attended by around 50 men belonging to Christian and Hindu communities. The notable figures in this meeting were the father of the accused Christian boy Sam, Mr. Patras Sadeep, Sam’s grandfather Mr. Sadeeq Masih, Fr. Gulshan Barkat OMI, Advocate Qamar Iqbal, Pervez Sardar, Dr. Gulzar Rehmat, Akbar Sardar, Khursheed Masih (Driver), Maqsood Barkat Mattu, Shahzad Barkat Mattu, Iqbal Sahotra, Barkat Sardar, Babar Masih, George Masih, Akhtar Sadeeq, Ashfaq Mushtaq, Shamas Iqbal Sahotra, Daleep Kumar, Zahid Ghulam; from Hindu community Mohan Rasham Jee, Ghansham Kanaiya Jee and Khakam Padma Jee.
Three points were on the agenda:
1. Offering thanks to everyone on the scene or behind the scene, figures in and out of the country who offered their moral, spiritual, and diplomatic support.
2. Self-evaluation (on the part of Christians what were the deficiencies that hindered bringing situation under control in the beginning?).
3. Formulation of a plan to avoid such incidents from occurring in future.
1. Offering thanks
On the outset Fr. Gulshan thanked the participants in the meeting. He gave a religio-political environment within the country, the place of Christians in Pakistani society and certain inputs on the recently concluded tension between Christians and Muslims in Bheel Nagar. Mr. Sadeeq Masih, the grandfather of accused Sam on behalf of his family thanked the Christian community of Bheel Nagar, Fr. Francis Akuve Cssp, Fr. Gulshan Barkat OMI, people abroad who had offered their services through diplomatic, moral and spiritual means to calm down the situation. Likewise others also had the same sense of gratitude and thankfulness for all visible and invisible hands to bring the situation under control.
This was a touchy and critical issue for discussion. First of all Sadeeq Masih presented his version of the story to the participants. According to him the Muslim party came armed to his house and began the fight. Sadeeq Masih stated, “the physical fight took place because the Muslim party had pre-mediated plan to so”. The others questioned Sadeeq that why did he not give some slaps to his grandson in front of the Muslims who came to accuse him to please them and finish the matter then and there? Why did the family not make efforts to try to take a more mediatory gesture even though the Muslim party came with arms? Why the family of the accused not take things seriously in the beginning that this issue could turn into a religious issue?
After this the whole series of issue came out, namely education of children, their daily life and activities, the role of parents in the education and formation of their children, their co/extra-curriculum activities etc.
3. Formulation of a plan
The participants realized the importance of education. They recognized that one of the root causes for such unpleasant events is education. So it was unanimously agreed upon that children of Nazareth colony should go to school and parents should play their role in educating their offsprings.
Fr. Gulshan proposed to form a ‘Peace Committee’ comprising of Christian, Muslims and Hindu representatives. Each religious community must be represented equally in numbers. The representatives of each religious community must be chosen by their community and must be backed fully by it. This committee will have quarterly meetings whether there are issues or not in order to know each other and share meals etc. The meetings will be hosted in turns by Christians, Muslims and Hindus so that an atmosphere of trust be built and further enhanced.
This proposal was welcomed by all the participants. Christians and Hindus have already agreed to form such a committee. There are also positive signs from the Muslim community of the locality to accept the proposal.
Issues emerging from tension between Christians and Muslims
It is noted that only 30 per cent of Christian children go to school in Bheel Nagar, 20 per cent go with their parents or are sent by their parents to earn money while other 50 per cent roam on the streets whole day and are found engaged in activities like drinking, using drugs, immoral behaviors etc. The education ratio is drastically low in Bheel Nagar among Christians which has given birth to different vices in the locality as mentioned above as an example.
In the meeting some participants were of the view that there are some parents who cannot afford to send their children to school while some who can afford to send their children to school have an indifferent attitude towards education. Some were of the opinion that even if their children get education, they will not be able to get government jobs since they are discriminated against by the Muslim community when they apply for it. On the other hand some said, “they can afford but their children do not listen to them and refuse to go to school. So how can we send them to school? We cannot be beating them all the time since they become very adamant and difficult to handle.”
The issue of education has emerged very strongly in this episode of tension. If children are in school, they will spend about five morning hours in school. They will come back home tired, will eat and take rest. After siesta they will begin their homework. In the evening they will go out to play for some time and come back home. Here given the locality situation, there is no play-ground for children. Children like to play and make fun. In Bheel Nagar one will find all houses, no open space where children could play cricket, football or take physical exercise to release their tiredness and energies. So even if children go to school and have no place to play, one may find them engaged in certain other activities with their friends which can displease others.
About 97 per cent of Christians living in Bheel Nagar work for daily wages. They have no government jobs. About 40 per cent women work in the houses of Muslim families in the city of Rahim Yar Khan. Quite a number of them undergo physical and sexual violence at their work-place in Muslim houses. Majority of men are engaged in carrying flour bags, loading and offloading carriers in Flour Mills around the locality. Bheel Nagar is surrounded by three big Flour Mills. In front of Bheel Nagar, across the major bypass road there is a Cotton & Ginning factory. During cotton season, men of Bheel Nagar find work in there. Those children who do not go to school will find themselves with their parents at workplace; boys with their fathers and girls with their mothers . It opens another huge issue of child labor. There are only few Christian families who have come up in social and economic mobility.
About 15 years ago there were only two religious communities living in Bheel Nagar namely Christians and Hindus. Bheel Nagar locality was chalked out at the request of a Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) of Punjab, Lala Mehar Lal Bheel to the government of Pakistan, in 1973 for the Bheel community when a major flood hit the district of Rahim Yar Khan and displaced many. At that time 8 acres were allotted for the displaced Bheel community on sand-dunes. Out of 8 acres, 2 acres were reserved for a graveyard. Fr. Timothy Carney OP, Pastor Umar, Miss Rita and Khursheed Masih (Driver) went to Lala Mehar Lal and requested for a portion of land out of 8 acres for the displaced Christians too. He granted their request and gave away 2 acres, meant for graveyard, to Christians. For some time Christians and Bheels lived in harmony but it did not last long and there was a severe fight between both communities over a dispute of a piece of land in Bheel Nagar. At this Lala Mehar Lal tried to put out Christians from Bheel Nagar but all attempts failed. Gradually Bheels began to leave the locality and sold their properties to Christians. This way Christians became majority and began calling the locality ‘Nazareth Colony’ instead of Bheel Nagar, although the name in the government papers remains ‘Bheel Nagar.’.
According to the 1956 Pakistan government (East and West Pakistan) statistics, there are about 32 Scheduled caste tribes of Hindus living in the country. The Scheduled caste Hindus are considered untouchable. They include Kohli, Menghwar, Bheel, Bagri, Balmikis, Jogi and Oad. The majority of Scheduled caste Hindus, like Bheels are living in Tharparkar and Umerkot districts of Sindh and Rahim Yar Khan and Bahawalpur districts in Southern Punjab.
In 1990s there were only few Muslim houses outside, little far from the 8 acres land meant for the Bheels. Early 2000s saw the influx of Muslim community around Bheel Nagar who bought land and settled there. Today there is a sizeable population of Muslims sharing walls with Bheel Nagar. There are about 150 Christian families, 200 Muslim families and 50 to 60 Bheel and Menghwar families living in and around Bheel Nagar. The social and religious spectrum has changed dramatically during the past decade. In this atmosphere inter-religious dialogue among these three religions of Bheel Nagar has become very imperative for harmonious co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Bheels.
It is possible that Christians will hear from Muslims that they should not ring the church bells or should avoid using loud-speakers during prayer services in the Church. Keeping in mind the possible forthcoming misunderstanding, it is of paramount importance that the peace committee be formed consisting of Christians, Muslims and Hindus (Bheels and Menghwars). This way an environment of understanding and co-existence can be built and religious tensions will be minimized.