The mob mentality that prevents things improving for Pakistan's minorities

While politicians shy away from watering down official discrimination, the situation isn't going to improve.

By any standards, the last few days have been bleak for Pakistan’s persecuted minority communities.

It started on Saturday, when a century-old Hindu temple in Karachi’s busy Soldier Bazaar area was demolished with the help of police. The Shri Rama Pir Mandir (temple) was razed to the ground along with three or four houses, by a private builder acting with the assistance of the local administration. This was despite the fact that a court stay order protecting the site had been granted. The bulldozers arrived in the morning, and people were told to get out of their houses. They watched as their homes and possessions were destroyed, unable to do anything about it. In this poverty-ridden cantonment, people live in cramped conditions. Around four families lived in each house that was destroyed, meaning that some 40 people have been made homeless.

Perhaps even more distressing for residents was the wanton destruction of their place of worship. The scene was devastating. Hindu deities sat among the rubble; families wept and screamed “if you don’t want us, we’ll go to India”. Astonishingly, despite the physical evidence, the authorities have continued to claim that the temple was not destroyed and that they were only acting against illegal occupants. This blatant dishonesty demonstrates the impunity with which the authorities can operate, confident that the disenfranchised Hindu community will be unable to do much about it.

The next incident took place in Lahore in the early hours of Monday morning. A group of 12-15 masked men entered an Ahmadi graveyard in the Model Town area, bearing weapons and excavation tools. They tied up the guards at the compound and desecrated 100 graves, removing and breaking tombstones, saying that they should not bear religious inscriptions because Ahmadis are “infidels”. The Ahmadiyya community is regarded as heretical because it does not believe that Mohammed was the last prophet to be sent to earth. To become a citizen of Pakistan, one must sign an oath declaring Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. Although the men who desecrated the graves are thought to have been members of the Taliban or another militant group, it is easy to see how the backdrop of officially-entrenched discrimination allows such views to flourish.

In an unrelated episode later that day, it emerged that Nadeem Yousuf, a 22-year-old man accused of blasphemy, had died in police custody. He had been detained seven days previously in Nankana Sahib town, Punjab, suspected of burning the Quran. According to his family, he suffered from mental health problems. The circumstances of his death are murky. Police claim he became seriously ill in custody, implying that he was a drug addict and could have died from withdrawal. His family allege that he was tortured to death. Regardless of the exact truth – and answers will be hard to come by – his case is just another sad example of blasphemy accusations being a death sentence. Even before the sentence is handed down, the majority of the accused die in custody or at the hands of an angry mob.

Taken together, these ostensibly unrelated incidents provide a disturbing snapshot of the fault line running through Pakistani society. From the extremists who desecrated the graveyard, to the local authority who demolished the Hindu temple, to the police who at worst tortured a young man and at best failed to get him medical assistance, there is a troubling disregard for safeguarding minority rights and freedom of religion. The solutions? They can only be long-term: education, community cohesion work, proper legal protection for minorities rather than just empty condemnations. Politicians shy away from watering down official discrimination such as the blasphemy law and the Ahmadi clause due to widespread support for these measures. But unless this mob mentality is tackled head on, there is very little hope for fighting extremist elements. After all, on the face of it, what is there really to separate the two?

Pakistani students protest in Lahore earlier this month demanding the re-opening of their school after it was set on fire by a crowd claiming a teacher had insulted the Prophed Mohammed. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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How the Standing Rock fight will continue

Bureaucratic ability to hold corporate interest account will be more necessary now than ever.

Fireworks lit up the sky in rural North Dakota on Sunday night, as protestors celebrated at what is being widely hailed as a major victory for rights activism.

After months spent encamped in tee-pees and tents on the banks of the Canonball river, supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe finally received the news they’d been waiting for: the US Army Corps has not issued the Dakota Access pipeline with the permit it requires to drill under Lake Oahe.

“We […] commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing" said a statement released by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II.

With the camp’s epic setting, social-media fame, and echoes of wider injustice towards Native Americans, the movement has already earned a place in the history books. You can almost hear the Hollywood scriptwriters tapping away.

But as the smoke settles and the snow thickens around the thinning campsite, what will be Standing Rock’s lasting legacy?

I’ve written before about the solidarity, social justice and environmental awareness that I think make this anti-pipeline movement such an important symbol for the world today.

But perhaps its most influential consequence may also be its least glamorous: an insistence on a fully-functioning and accountable bureaucratic process.

According to a statement from the US Army’s Assistant Secretary of Civil Words, the Dakota Access project must “explore alternate routes”, through the aid of “an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis”.

This emphasis on consultation and review is not big-statement politics from the Obama administration. In fact it is a far cry from his outright rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project in 2015. Yet it may set an even more enduring example.

The use of presidential power to reject Keystone, was justified on the grounds that America needed to maintain its reputation as a “global leader” on climate change. This certainly sent a clear message to the world that support from Canadian tar-sands oil deposits was environmentally unacceptable.

But it also failed to close the issue. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, has remained “committed” to the project and has embroiled the government in a lengthy legal challenge. Unsurprisingly, they now hope to “convince” Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s position.

In contrast, the apparently modest nature of the government’s response to Dakota Access Pipeline may yet prove environmental justice’s biggest boon. It may even help Trump-proof the environment.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do”, said the Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works.

Back in July, the same Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over domestic pipelines crossing major waterways) waved through an environmental assessment prepared by the pipeline’s developer and approved the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe subsequently complained that the threat to its water supply and cultural heritage had not been duly considered. This month’s about-turn is thus vital recognition of the importance of careful and extensive public consultation. And if ever such recognition was needed it is now.

Not only does Donald Trump have a financial tie to the Energy Transfer Partners but the wider oil and gas industry also invested millions into other Republican candidate nominees. On top of this, Trump has already announced that Myron Ebell, a well known climate sceptic, will be in charge of leading the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maintaining the level of scrutiny finally granted for Standing Rock may not be easy under the new administration. Jennifer Baker, an attorney who has worked with tribes in South Dakota on pipeline issues for several years, fears that the ground gained may not last long. But while the camp at Standing Rock may be disbanding, the movement is not.

This Friday, the three tribes who have sued the Corps (the Yankont, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes) will head to a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to increase pressure on the government to comply with both domestic and international law as it pertains to human rights and indigenous soveriegnty. 

What the anti-pipeline struggle has shown - and will continue to show - is that a fully accountable and transparent bureaucratic process could yet become the environment's best line of defence. That – and hope.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.