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Punjab on a boil: Religious violence continues with murder of a pastor in Ludhiana

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 17 July 2017, 18:41 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

Punjab is once again on the edge over the killing of religious leaders after a Christian priest was gunned down in Ludhiana Saturday night. Sultan Masih, 53, was talking on his mobile phone when two persons on a motorcycle, with their faces covered, pumped bullets into him. He succumbed to his injuries at a private hospital later.

The murder has led to fear among the minority community that is now raising concerns over safety.

The assault on religious functionaries and religio-political institutions have been continuing unabated. In most cases, it has been motorcycle-borne assailants who have shot at the victims. Their hitlist, so far, looks something like this:

18 January, 2016 – Naresh Kumar, a Mukhya Shikshak of a RSS Shakha in Ludhiana was shot dead.

4 April, 2016 – Mata Chand Kaur who was the wife of the former head of Namdhari sect Sadguru Jagjit Singh was killed at Bhaini Sahib near Ludhiana.

17 May, 2016 – There was a murderous assault on a preacher named Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwale. Although he escaped, his aide Bhupinder Singh died in the attack on his cavalcade that was carried out by around a dozen assailants near a 'chabeel' (offering cold drinks to passersby) in Ludhiana.

6 August, 2016 – One of the top RSS functionaries Brigadier (Retired) Jagdish Gagneja was shot at in Jalandhar.

14 January, 2017 – Amit Sharma, a functionary of a Hindu organisation Amit Sharma was shot dead in Ludhiana.

The murder of Pastor Sultan Masih is another addition to this continuing cycle of spiralling religious violence.


Attack on the community

“He was one of the senior-most Christian leaders in the area. The killing was carried out in a well-planned and systematic manner,” said K Koshy, a senior church functionary in Ludhiana churches.

“There is a concern about the safety and security in the community. This is being seen as an attempt to disrupt communal amity in the state. There have been attempts to foment communal trouble in the state for quite some time now. After all, the Christians were never attacked, even during the height of militancy in the state,” said Koshy, who is the chairman council of Ludhiana churches.

The Christian leaders are also pointing towards continuing the targeting of the community by 'fundamentalist' organisations across the country including in Goa where there have been instances of desecration of religious symbols.

Reports say that at least 11 holy crosses at Christian institutions and a temple have been vandalised in south Goa since 1 July.

In Punjab, a few days ago the Punjab Police arrested four people in Tarn Taran district for making and circulating a blasphemous video against Christianity. The video had gone viral and this was followed by massive protests from across the community.

“We have taken up the matter of the security of our institutions and community with the government. We will approach the authorities both at the state and the central levels formally on the issue,” said Koshy.

Meanwhile, Munawar Masih, the chairman of Punjab Minorities Commission, said, “The killing of the pastor is a shameful incident. We have taken up the matter with the police and administrative authorities. We will be pursuing the legal course in the matter.”

Reacting immediately to the situation, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh announced an ex gratia of Rs 5 lakh. He called the family to offer his condolences and promised strong action against the culprits. Amarinder assured Masih’s widow, Sarabjit Kaur, of all possible government help and told her that her 18-year-old son Alisha would be provided with a job in the police department to sustain the family.

Sources said Amarinder has pulled up the top police brass in the state and has asked them to launch a crackdown against communal forces trying to whip up a frenzy in the state through such incidents.


Amarinder takes a stand

Sources also disclosed that there are intelligence inputs on forces outside trying to foment communal trouble and also carry out acts of violence to derail the state from functioning.

Amarinder has directed DGP Suresh Arora to ensure that the various departments of the police and intelligence in the state liaison and coordinate with one another in order to gather advance intelligence to prevent the recurrence of such incidents. He has also called for a coordination between the state and central police along with intelligence agencies to facilitate more concerted and cohesive intelligence gathering to enable better handling of the situation.

The Punjab CM underlined that attempts to vitiate the state’s environment would not be tolerated at any cost and has warned of strict action against any police officer found guilty of dereliction of duty in this regard.

He has also directed the DGP to ask the field officers to coordinate with the local Christian leaders for support in defusing the situation resulting from the killing.

Amarinder has pointed out that he had already taken the matter of expediting CBI probe into cases of other targeted killings, including of RSS, Hindu and Shiv Sena leaders that had been taking place in Punjab since January 2016, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At his meeting with Modi on 11 July, Amarinder noted that despite their best efforts, the central and state police and intelligence agencies have failed to make a breakthrough.

SAD hits back

Meanwhile, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has launched a frontal attack against the state government on the issue while expressing grave concern over the fast deteriorating law and order situation.

“They were promising the moon in four weeks. But it is four months today and they are taking the state towards lawlessness, chaos and utter mismanagement. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the alarming drift on the law and order front,” said a resolution passed at a SAD legislature party meeting that was presided over by former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.

Badal later described the killing of Sultan Masih as 'a grim reminder of the inability of the state administration to preserve the atmosphere of peace and communal harmony which the Congress government had inherited from its SAD-BJP counterpart in March this year'.

He said the main reason for the sudden down slide in the law and order situation in Punjab is the preoccupation of those in the government with 'matters extraneous to their assigned duties in public service'.

“During our tenure, the entire elite of the country’s business, trade and industry remained keenly interested in the state and captains of business and industry kept visiting the state individually and together at the Invest Punjab Summits. Now, there appears to be zero activity on this front and law and order, among other factors, is a major reason,” Badal said.

SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal said that no one is safe in Punjab with the state witnessing a complete break down in law and order under the Congress rule.

“The Congress government is paying a heavy price for not acting against its own workers who started political killings immediately after the party came into power. The state witnessed sensational killings with one Akali worker being murdered in Gurdaspur after being threatened on the loudspeaker. In another case, two members of an Akali family were killed in Ferozepur after being threatened on Facebook. Even Dalits who had voted for the SAD were not spared with many being thrashed and one being even sensationally stripped. All this created an impression that anything goes and anti-social elements took advantage of this and started a spate of robberies and dacoities. Even gang warfare has intensified in Punjab recently,” he added.

Observers say that it needs to be pointed that the spiralling of religious violence including instances of desecration of holy texts had started when the SAD-BJP was in power. The four-month-old Congress government has failed to check it till now.

Asking the government to wake up from its slumber and enforce the rule of law, Sukhbir said if this is not done quickly there is a danger of Punjab slipping into the dark days of turmoil again.


First published: 17 July 2017, 18:40 IST