RAWALPINDI, Nov 16: For the second year in a row, Muharram has brought death and destruction to Rawalpindi.
Last year, a suicide bomber struck a procession in the heart of Rawalpindi while this year the city’s own residents were behind violent clashes on Friday between Deobandi activists and Shia mourners in Raja Bazaar that led to death of nine people and forced the government to impose curfew.
By Saturday morning the city had been sealed off from Islamabad by containers and the imposition of curfew had ensured that most streets and roads remained empty and quiet. Only military and police personnel roamed the ghost town.
All major roads within Rawalpindi were blocked by containers and markets remained closed.
The hapless people of the main Raja Bazaar, where the conflagration had begun on Friday, had remained confined to their houses for over 24 hours by Saturday evening.
Though the curfew was relaxed in the evening from 6pm to 6:30pm, shops were not opened so there was little opportunity for residents to replenish their stocks. The curfew was again relaxed in the night from 9pm to 12 midnight.
Commissioner Khalid Masood Chaudhry told Dawn that the government had not yet decided to lift the curfew or further extend it for another 24 hours. He said that the announcement would be made after a review of the situation.
Public transport also remained absent. A few – but very few – private vehicles were seen on the roads.
Intelligence sources and eyewitnesses said the crisis began in the afternoon when the mourning procession of Ashura reached Fawara Chowk where its participants heard the remarks of Maulana Shakirullah, a local Imam who was giving the Friday speech from the Mosque and Madressah Taleemul Quran (known as Maulvi Ghulamullah wali Masjid). A follower of the Deobandi school of thought, the imam made harsh and offensive comments against the Shia community.
It was unfortunate that though the City District Government Rawalpindi (CDGR) had banned the use of loudspeaker (except for giving Azan and the Friday sermon in Arabic), this ban was violated by the mosque administration despite the presence of police and local administration.
It is not clear what happened after this. While some eyewitnesses claim that the Shia participants of the procession (including about 100 youngsters from Parachinar and other parts of Kurram Agency) instigated the violence by pelting stones on the mosque, others claim that the students and people in the Madressah were the first to throw stones.
SITUATION WORSENS: Regardless of who cast the first stone, the clash soon intensified shortly after which gunfire was exchanged.
“During the clash, the police tried to overpower the angry mob but they were outnumbered. Some of the young men snatched the policemen’s rifles and emptied the weapons on their opponents,” Abdul Waheed, an eyewitness, told Dawn.
He said that after the exchange of fire, the mob set fire to the mosque which was located above the Madina and Makkah Markets. The markets were located on the ground floor and sold fabric.
Later they ransacked the market.
The mob set fire to two main fabric markets, including more than 100 shops, four private banks, smashed windowpanes of buildings at an adjacent bazaar. It also attacked the police and three Imambargahs in different parts of the city.
The mob violence in the midst of gunfire was extreme enough to strike fear in the city’s residents – despite the ban on cellphone services, the news of the clash spread like wild fire (partly thanks to the electronic media) and added to the strength of the two clashing groups.
“Some of the people inside the mosque managed to escape through back door,” said a police official who was present on the spot.
The part of the procession that had already passed by the mosque and was ahead of the violence managed to reach Imambargah Qadeemi three kilometres away.
However, those in the rear never made it to the destination.
The nine deaths took place at this location as well as the bulk of the injuries.
By the evening the army was called in. Rescue workers also turned up to shift the injured and dead to the nearby District Headquarters Hospital. The fire brigade vehicles battled the blaze in the cloth market as it was spreading towards other adjoining markets.
The clashes on the other hand spread to other areas of the city where Deobandi activists attacked Imambargah Haideria in Ratta Amral; Imambargah Col Maqbool on College Road, Imambargah Hifazat Ali Shah in Bohar Bazaar and Qadeemi Imambargah at the Jamia Masjid Road.
Three more people were injured during these attacks.
The army was deployed at these places but after failing to control the situation, it was decided by the government that curfew would be imposed.
Regional Police Officer (RPO) Zaheen Iqbal Sheikh told Dawn that the curfew was imposed to avert further clash as the police and administration feared that when people gathered for the funeral of those killed on Friday the situation would lead to further violence.
The RPO did not provide any details about the investigations carried out by the police, nor did he say how many people had been arrested.