26 Years After Shanti Nagar Tragedy, Minorities Still Unsafe In Pakistan

26 Years After Shanti Nagar Tragedy, Minorities Still Unsafe In Pakistan
Shanti Nagar is a local village in district Khanewal, and was known as a peaceful and tranquil community; even the place’s name proclaims peace. Shanti Nagar represented interfaith harmony between several communities, including Christians and Muslims. Communities cherished each other’s presence.

Yet the tale of this harmonious quaint village was witness to the greatest tragedy in the history of the Pakistani Christian community. The tale of the horror that was inflicted upon Shanti Nagar leaves behind nothing but fear and terror.

The tragedy of Shanti Nagar unfolded in the cruel winter of 1997; it all started in January as a mere act of valor when the locals of Shanti Nagar stood up for the integrity of their holy book. They filed a complaint against a police offer who had kicked and stomped upon the Holy book of Christians.

When the police officer was suspended due to that complaint, the inhabitants of Shanti Nagar rejoiced and celebrated the victory of the law, and were glad that justice had prevailed. That the equal rights enshrined to them as citizens of Pakistan were protected.

However, that day in January merely laid the foundation for the day of vengeance for the inhabitants of Shanti Nagar. The most significant chapter of this tale occurred on the morning of 5th February 1997, when several burnt pages of the Koran were found outside a mosque near Shanti Nagar. The pages were burnt and desecrated, and had the name of a 60-year old owner of a gambling den, Baba-Raji along with his address, written on them.

The pages enraged devoted Muslims within the local community observing the Holy Month of Ramadan. All the sentiments induced within the believers triggered a violent wave of vengeance. The clerics were the orchestrators of the violence, and began to make announcements from the local mosque, alleging charges of 295-C. The streets of Shanti Nagar were echoing sermons that proclaimed the beauty and glory of revenge in the name of faith. Soon, these vitriolic sermons started baying for blood, and violence called for. A scheme that involved the burning down of all 8 Christian villages in district Khanewal to discipline the entire Christian Community of Pakistan was openly touted.

Word spread like wildfire in this small district, Muslims from all over the district traveled to Shanti Nagar to be part of this history-making lesson. Meanwhile, news of vengeance also made its way to the local Christians. Some of these locals dared to get help from the police, and under the surveillance of police protection, they dared to stay within the bounds of Shanti Nagar. Some locals learned the gravity of the situation and decided to flee before things got out of hand. A day before this incident, police reportedly collected all the weapons from the locals of the Shanti Nagar as a way of ensuring peace.

By the evening prayer, the Muslim rioters were ready to write the climax of this tale. Around 30,000 Muslims had gathered in a mob for the sake of vengeance for the integrity of their Holy Book. Fueled by fierce sermons, the mob of angered Muslims decided the fate of the Christians of Shanti Nagar. This chaotic mob entered the vicinity of Shanti Nagar upon heavily loaded vehicles. Armed with rifles, pistols, daggers, sticks, handmade bombs, and other weapons, the mob declared war upon the innocent residents.

While the empty streets of Shanti Nagar echoed with the anthem of vengeance, local Christians still had faith in the agents of the state tasked with guarding their lives and property. The first wave of chaos and fear made itself known when the power supply was disrupted. Dark descended upon Shanti Nagar, and before the locals could predict the next move, the mob attacked the telephone transmission lines, leaving the locals in a state of frenzy.

In this turn of events, the locals of Shanti Nagar started bolting their doors and offering prayers in hopes of their last refuge from this riot. Wailing in their own anxiety, the Christians of Shanti Nagar cursed the moment they had stood up for the integrity of their Holy Book. Families held onto each other waiting for the blazing fire to cleanse them from this curse of fear, and free them from this catastrophe. The mob that had gathered at Shanti Nagar celebrated the 27th of Ramadan in 1997 by kindling an entire village on fire. In the pitch-black foggy night, the mob started pounding on gates, plundering the houses, and forcing several locals to accept Islam, and those who refused were beaten to death.

The chaotic mob carried such lethal incendiary chemicals that a lit fire had the potential to melt metal roofing. The fertile land of Shanti Nagar was plundered; fields were brutally attacked and even trees were punished for being part of the Christian community, cattle were cruelly tortured and left stranded, and young Christians were severely tortured in ways that left them dismembered. Innumerable Christians were tortured under the divine calling of forced conversion. A Christian teacher was reportedly attacked by her own Muslim student, who excitedly announced that “we are here to rob you today.” The farm that lay at the entrance of Shanti Nagar was torched to emphasize the economic ruin that had descended upon Shanti Nagar.

According to a report by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), 14 churches, 5 pastor’s houses, 125 shops, 598 victim families, 24 vehicles and tractors, 5 tube wells and 2 schools were set ablaze and turned into a heap of ashes.

8,574 Christians lost their homes, and 785 houses were burnt. The damage caused in the riot was estimated at around $25 million. Yet, there are no reports on how this torture affected the mental health of the survivors of the Shanti Nagar incident.

While several villages were being turned to ashes, the Khanewal DPO assured the bishop in Khanewal that everything is under control around midnight. On the other hand, locals waited for their turn to be seared in the pogrom. Mothers hushed their wailing babies, pretending to be dead somewhere in the fields, hoping that the mob won’t target them.

Shanti Nagar burned and was turned into a heap of ashes; the gloomy streets echoed with the horrendous screaming of people, while churches were turned to debris. The torture inflicted on the Christian community on 6 February 1997 continued through the night, as several Christian villages in the Khanewal district faced the same fate as Shanti Nagar. This torture ended with the intervention of the army. When an army officer visited a desecrated church, he offered to remove his shoes, but Saman S. Lal, a representative of the Christian community, asked him not to because the sanctity of the church has already been defiled.

For two days, the locals who survived this incident waited for help, while they starved in the winter. The government of Pakistan failed to help them. Without a roof, shelter, and a place to sleep, these individuals were left to their misery.

After 26 years, the streets of Shanti Nagar still carry the marks of the anguish inflicted on that fateful night.

Twenty-six years cannot erase the marks of suffering engraved upon the memory of the residents of Shanti Nagar, and for those who survived that night of terror, they are still torn by the horror they witnessed in that winter of 1997. Perhaps the real tragedy is that this wasn’t the first incident of its kind in Pakistan, and it wasn’t the last either. We have witnessed history being repeated in Gojra, Kasur, and Joseph Colony.