Sargodha Lynching Likely A Targeted Attack Over Personal Dispute: HRCP Fact-Finding Report

Finds that police took an initial call and FIR on the matter too lightly and failed to act in time while the Punjab government is attempting to downplay the issue 

Sargodha Lynching Likely A Targeted Attack Over Personal Dispute: HRCP Fact-Finding Report

The attack on a Christian family in Sargodha last month was likely a targeted attack over a personal dispute between two neighbours, and the police must arrest those responsible for lynching Nazir Masih and destroying his properties with the attack investigated and the suspects duly charged.

This was concluded by a fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which visited the site of the May 25 incident, Mujahid Colony in Sargodha. A report of the fact-finding mission was issued on Tuesday as reports came in that Nazir Masih, who had been receiving treatment for severe injuries for the past ten days, had succumbed.

In the 10-page report, HRCP said they had visited the site and spoke with the local Christian community, law enforcers, and area residents to ascertain what had happened on May 25 and the status of Muslim-Christian relations in the colony prior to the incident and the possible events that led up to the violent incident.

The commission found that Nazir Masih, who used to reside abroad and periodically visited his home in Sargodha, was a well-to-do resident who owned the largest house on his street. When he was in Pakistan, he would get up early, sweep the area outside his house, pile up the trash and set it alight before returning and getting on with the rest of his day. He also owned a small shoe workshop located further down the street where nine people worked, all Christians. Nazir Masih had two sons, Sultan and Ilyas. Sultan lived in a house adjacent to Nazir Masih's, where his family ran a small beauty parlour.

On the morning of May 25, as per routine, Nazir Masih woke up early, swept the area outside his house, torched the fallen leaves and other rubbish, and then went home. Soon thereafter, announcements were made from the minaret of a local mosque about an alleged sacrilegious act having been committed, and residents were urged to gather outside the homes of Nazir and Sultan Masih. Messages to the effect were circulated on WhatsApp as well.

Soon after, a large, enraged crowd started gathering outside Nazir Masih's home. The crowd numbered several hundred people and mostly comprised residents of Mujahid Colony and adjoining areas. The crowd also included a lot of local women of all ages. Some members of the crowd were armed with rocks, sticks and petrol bombs. They demanded that Nazir Masih and his family be put to death.

As the mob attempted to break into Nazir Masih's home, the police were called, and a large contingent arrived within the hour. The police tried to reason with the crowd to little avail and then, under cover of tear gas, whisked away Nazir Masih's family to safety. However, in the commotion, Nazir Masih somehow was caught by the mob and lynched. The police, though, returned and tried to evacuate a severely injured Nazir Masih. When the ambulance, which was waiting for them on the main road, was also attacked, forcing its driver to flee, the police took Masih to the hospital in their van.

SP Ziaullah, the police superintendent in whose jurisdiction Mujahid Colony falls, told HRCP that two FIRs related to the event were registered. The first was registered against Nazir Masih at 8:30 am on May 25 under Sections 295A and 295B of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which pertain to blasphemy. The FIR also included Section 9 of the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 as 'sectarian hatred' was cited. It was registered by the police on the verbal statement of Mujahid Colony resident Muhammad Jahangir. In the FIR, Jahangir claimed that he heard a noise in the street. When he went out to check the noise, he allegedly witnessed Nazir Masih committing a sacrilegious act. 

Jahangir claimed that Muhammad Irfan Gondal (the son of Ayub Gondal - a rival of Nazir Masih) and Muhammad Akram had also witnessed the alleged offence. Subsequently, the FIR states Akram called the police on their helpline, 15, and reported the matter. When a police squad visited the area, Jahangir claimed they had presented the alleged evidence to the police. 

Representatives of the Christian community corroborated that the police did visit the colony just prior to the mob attacks but claimed they did not deem the complaint serious enough and take preventive action. This lack of action on the part of the police, they claimed, allegedly spurred Gondal and his associates to instigate mob violence.

A second FIR was lodged hours after the attack on Nazir Masih's home and shoe workshop for lynching and attempted murder of Nazir Masih. The FIR also included terrorism charges.

Role of Ayub Gondal

Through interviews with the Christian community and residents of Mujahid Colony (both Muslims and Christians), the commission's fact-finding report found that the incident seemed specific to Nazir Masih and his son Sultan (who was also injured in the mob attack) and the cause of it seemed to stem from history between the Masih family and their neighbour, Ayub Gondal. The mission noted that the incident may have been a way to 'settle scores'.

The Christian community of Sargodha alleged that the children of Sultan Masih and Ayub Gondal had had an altercation a few days prior to the incident.

Moreover, members of the Christian community, including some who reside in Mujahid Colony, noted that a poster of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) are prominently displayed outside a shop reportedly owned by Gondal. Further, they suggested that Gondal was an active TLP supporter who worked closely with the party's candidate from the district during the February 2024 elections.

Moreover, one FIR mentions someone related to Gondal as a witness who brought blasphemy charges against Nazir Masih.

However, HRCP noted that otherwise, the interfaith relations between the 150-200 Christian families living in the colony and around 2,000 Muslim families were generally cordial. 

'Impossible to return'

The female members of Nazir Masih's family, whom the HRCP mission spoke to, appreciated the police for looking after them and for evacuating them in time. 

While SP Ziaullah said the family would soon be able to return to their home safely, a family member privately told HRCP that returning was nearly impossible.

"How do we have any guarantee that this will not happen again?" the family member said.

Asked about how Nazir Masih got caught by the mob when the rest of the family was safely evacuated, the police explained that due to the tear gas, when they exited the building, Nazir Masih got disoriented and took off in the direction of the mob instead the way the police were ushering them to safety. The police maintained that they did go back and rescue Nazir Masih, but by then, he had been lynched.

During the site visit, the HRCP team noted that while Nazir and Sultan Masih's homes and workshop had been vandalised, the police had whitewashed the signs of fire caused by petrol bombs thrown by the enraged mob. 

When asked about this, the police said they had collected the necessary evidence and had been instructed by the provincial government to restore these houses to their original condition as soon as possible.

Conclusion and recommendations

HRCP concluded that the incident emanated from a personal dispute, and the connection between Gondal and TLP needs to be taken seriously.

While the police did well to evacuate the Masih family, HRCP noted that they failed to protect Nazir Masih from the lynch mob and anticipate the gravity of the call they had received on the helpline, 15. 

The commission also expressed deep concern over the Punjab government's attempts to downplay the incident and failure to engage with the Christian community in Sargodha. 

HRCP said it has reason to believe that while interfaith relations between the Muslims and Christians of Mujahid Colony appear cordial on the surface, they have become increasingly subject to deep-seated resentment over issues—mainly non-religious—that often give way to allegations of blasphemy. Even where violence is not a direct result, wider societal discord is now inevitable.

The commission recommended that all those involved in the mob attack and Nazir Masih's death should be arrested and duly prosecuted. 

It further recommended that the police and district administration share what steps they are taking to ensure that such incidents do not reoccur and restore the confidence of Christian residents in their ability to return.

The commission recommended that concerted efforts must be made to curb and counter hate speech of all kinds, especially through social media and using loudspeakers in mosques.

It recommended that the police improve their response times, equipment, and powers to deal with such incidents. 

Moreover, it was recommended that police officers be sensitised to the real risks of alleged blasphemy complaints.