WHEN the arsonists broke into the Seth Dhunichand Pahlumal Bhatia Hindu Dharamshala near Jinnah Bagh, Parvesh Kumar, 20, dashed up to the rooftop. A BSc student from Dokri taluka, Kumar had recently volunteered to be one of the caretakers of the community centre. As the emotionally charged men went on the rampage on Saturday night, Kumar shook nervously, praying the men did not discover him upstairs.
Situated on Station Road in Larkana, the pre-partition edifice can be easily missed as it is crammed between mobile phone and hardware shops.
Showing us around on Monday, Kumar made sure not to repeat the obvious. The white tiles of the spacious veranda had turned black as belongings and property were set alight by the men.
Chairs were set up near the rooms for community elders wanting to witness the damage. Nearby, the vice chairman of the Hindu Panchayat Dr Dharampal Bhawani’s mobile phone kept ringing. “I don’t know how to pacify people from our community. This is the first time we have to deal with an incident like this,” he said.
But an elderly local resident said the dharamshala had come under fire in the late 1950s too when a rape incident in the Indian town of Jabalpur infuriated the Muslims in the subcontinent. “A few men barged in then as well. There was no loss of life. But I remember my Muslim neighbours providing shelter to our family,” he stated.
The mood inside the dharamshala remained tense after the incident as community leaders remained non-committal in their response regarding what triggered the incident.
Half a kilometre away from Station Road, the New Leelabad — also known as New Murad Wahan — neighbourhood made news after a Hindu man was accused by a shopkeeper named Manan Sheikh of burning pages of the Quran on Saturday night.
But from the accounts of the man’s neighbours and various people of the area, it seems the suspect was well liked. A resident, G. R. Bhatti, said: “It is sad to see a simple man like him being wrongly embroiled in a controversy as scary as blasphemy.”
Walking along the narrow lanes as we made our way to the home of the suspect, Bhatti said the man accusing him was considered a “nuisance” by many in the neighbourhood. Sheikh, 22, irons clothes at a small dry-cleaning shop beside the suspect’s rented home. On a street corner stands a cream-coloured, two-storey building where the suspect, now under the protection of the ASP City Larkana, lived.
Both venues, the shop and the suspect’s home, were locked from outside. Pointing to the steps of the shop, Bhatti said: “Manan with his friends used to sit here and whistle at girls passing by. [The suspect’s] two sisters were among them. Though they were drinking buddies at night, they had many altercations about Sheikh’s wayward behaviour towards his sisters.”
As the suspect is unemployed, his sisters work at a nearby beauty salon to make ends meet. Residents said the girls would ignore advances of Sheikh and his friends.
Described mostly as a “simpleton” and “dervish-minded”, the neighbours said nobody saw the suspect burn the sacred pages. “Yes, the pages were recovered from a sewage line right in front of his home. But nobody saw him there; no one saw him burning the pages either. I don’t want to accuse anyone unjustly,” said Pervez Ali, owner of the dry-cleaning shop where Manan worked.
Living close by, Sheikh’s brother Izhar Ali was quick to present a clarification. “We have taken Manan to a safer place as we fear for his security,” he said. “A few people handed him a shopper with burnt pages of the Holy Book. I don’t know whether he did it or not. But we’ll help the police in locating who did it.”
“You just have to connect the dots,” doctor and professor at the Chandka Medical College Dr Inayat Magsi said. “A low-income neighbourhood, den of extortionists and land grabbers at the back of it, a Hindu girl refusing sexual advances, living with a brother with drinking problems — it helps many people in one go. If the men were so emotionally charged, why didn’t they go straight to a temple? Why did they plunder an off-route dharamshala first?”
He continued: “This is not Lahore or Bahawalpur where angry protesters will burn down an entire neighbourhood. Over here, people feel duty-bound to protect their neighbours. Many students from the seminary and boys from around the area surrounded the homes of other Hindu families to protect them. Otherwise, this incident could have created another Gojra from Larkana.”