by Najma Sadeque
A year ago, people were disgusted when a cleric named Khalid Chisti had planted false evidence on young Rimsha and incited locals against the Christian community to which she belonged. Once the media went onto other crises of which there’s no dearth, the official machinery found the cleric innocent and accordingly acquitted him!
Given the absolute corruption of our police and lower courts, the outcome should be no surprise. It was, however, unexpected because it was not just about injustice meted out to a single individual, but had wider linkages and repercussions.
Whether it is to build a house, workplace, factory, or grow crops or graze livestock on, people need land. In urban areas, it is known as real estate. All put together, they constitute the territory of a country. Managing so much area, with population to match, requires coordinated economic, social, political, financial, and governance systems. They work well as long as people and rulers agree on some ground rules, and a live-and-let-live outlook.
Land is the ultimate wealth and money spinner, or cushion to fall back on, whether in politics, business or something as mundane as subsistence livelihood. Every step of governance and economic activity involves land, no matter how remotely or indirectly. Most departments and ministries deal with it in some form or the other – housing, infrastructure, utilities, shops, offices, industrial areas, even harbours. Even the landless have to rent land or exchange some service for the privilege of living on it. Control over land is, therefore, key to control over a country and people. Even colonisation, corporatisation, and ‘free trade’ involved land resources.
Administrative units demarcated for convenience of governance, are double-edged swords – or opportunities. It helps delineating ‘territorial control’ by corrupt government departments, especially police and local bodies departments, or the local mafia, or a combination of both. Today, it is a full-blown kickback, bribery, and extortion racket in Karachi and elsewhere.
Buffy Sainte-Marie, an indigenous member of the Americas living in Canada, and a singer-composer, artist, pacifist, and social activist, whose themes include mysticism, religion, and war, put it aptly in a lyric:-
“Got Mother Nature on a luncheon plate,
They carve her up and call it real estate,
Want all the resources and all of the land,
They make a war over it; they blow things
up for it.”
“What he can’t buy, he’ll get some other way,
Send in the troopers if the Natives resist…….
Look at these people, Lord, they’re on a roll,
Got to have it all; gotta have complete control.”
Even before independence took place, when agriculture was the main source of wealth both before and during colonisation, rural control was shored up by many feudal lords doubling as spiritual leaders. While some ancestors must have surely been holy, the unproven invention of spirituality by inheritance was established perforce. Tyrannical and inhuman overlords could eat the cake and keep it too, while no one could dare question why kindness, charity, and justice were not part of the inheritance.
In urban areas, where large landholdings are not the rule, the narrowly educated took a selective view of religion as the sole moral code rather than a personal one, and determinant of how society and country should be governed – although religions enjoin justice broadly without spelling out obvious particulars.
This inevitably became a chronic bone of contention between different minds, or ‘schools of thought’. Religion for personal and social salvation is muddied with custom, and political and economic practices. Stubborn immoveable stands are often taken by rival groups. But religious cover for more unsavoury ends is not unknown either, leading to widespread abuse of blasphemy laws.
Instead of secularity being seen as protection upholding individual and group beliefs by separating state from religion, it is denounced arbitrarily as godlessness and amorality. And that becomes the whole and sole rationale for a full-time career as keepers of public morals, whether people want it or not. Victims would define it as vigilantism.
Sometimes for the poor, it is the only survival. All too often, the imposed religious path boils down to blind unquestioning obedience – strict adherence to simplistic rules, sans reference to conscience or common sense, and the promise of divine wrath and hellfire for disobedience. It is feudalism by another name, also giving opportunity to fake or purchasable clerics to do the bidding of mafiosi.
Because it did not make sense at the time for a cleric to get after a child, the media got busy and found other motivation pointing to real-estate operators. Many cities and towns of Pakistan, where people from different sects or faiths have lived peacefully side by side throughout, have sometimes suddenly erupted with one side attacking the homes and places of worship of the other for no plausible reason – until it is discovered, too late, which parties ultimately gained from the violence. Religion was often the means, not the end.
The community was forced to flee their homes for their very lives; Rimsha and her family found safety only when given sanctuary in Canada. The trend mimics on smaller scale the tragic migration during independence, when people were suddenly forced to leave their homes or lands behind, unsold, and opportunistic locals on both sides grabbed the spoils and made them their own.
With so many corruption cases linked to real estate and assets on them, governance needs to be looked at through a real-estate lens as well, in-depth, whether white-collar or blue-collar.
Higher authorities and justices have so far not reacted to the Rimsha case. Since she is safely absent, it seems no longer relevant. But it still leaves a gravely-wronged minority community out in the cold; while others remain under threat. How is it that those who allegedly forced untruthful statements from witnesses, were not taken to task? How can we be certain that statements were not retracted under duress as well? Has the Christian community returned safely to their homes?
It was appalling enough that a million-rupee bail was set on a non-terrorist like Rimsha. Already traumatised, the community is unlikely to dare appeal against the decision. Will the Chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, who defended her as a ‘daughter of the nation’ speak up? And the Human Rights Commission? Or will it require an appeal for suo motu notice?
This article was published in The Nation on August 21, 2013