Like much of the newly born states at the end of colonialism, Pakistan vowed to drive its campaign following the principles of equality, justice, and brotherhood. The desire of making the country friendly to minorities was also in line with founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah who said “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed— that has nothing to do with the business of the State” during his address to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947.
Accepting their presence and giving freedom to minorities in a state that was formed purely in the name of Islam was not only praiseworthy but a complete compliance to Islamic norms which avow liberty and equality of all non-Muslims. Soon however, with the demise of Jinnah, hardcore clerics and the society under their patronage started to splurge prejudicial behavior towards minorities. Seventy years on, there have been very few efforts to address the continuous betrayal of these underprivileged segments of society. Realizing the sensitivity of the matter, the current government is trying to mainstream minorities, and even that takes few bold steps in the age of social media and ripening sectarianism.
Last year, on the directive of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif1, the National Center for Physics at Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad was named after Dr. Abdus Salam, who was Ahmadi, a community that was declared non-Muslim in 1974 because of their denial of certain Islamic beliefs, and who remains the only Pakistani to have won a Nobel Prize in Science. 37 years later, the state has finally recognized the services of Dr. Salam, with varied reactions. Only a slight segment of society appreciated PM Sharif and most remained critical about the decision. The highest body that deals with Shariah (Islamic Law) matters, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), also decried the decision and asserted that this would have damaging effects in the future. Seeing the reservations of these prestigious clerics, others also lambasted the government and characterized the move as a deliberate attempt to run society on secularist grounds.
Days later, after bearing the criticisms that appeared on social media in the wake of the renaming of the Physics Department, PM Sharif fled to Katas Raj, a 5,000-year-old Hindu Temple in District of Chakwal. His visit came after a deadly mob attack on the Ahmadia mosque in the same district on the day of Eid Milad (the celebration of the birthday of Prophet Muhammad PBUH). An angry crowd of more than 1,000 people set on fire the place of worship, ending up killing one person and injuring many. Under the circumstances, Sharif’s visit was thus considered suspicious and daring simultaneously. Additionally, he not only sanctioned sufficient funds for the renovation of the temple but also assured his audience that he would soon turn the country minorities-friendly. Sharif went on to say that “I am the Prime Minister of all Pakistanis ... be it a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian or any other religion.”
Despite being number four among countries with the most public holidays (16 precisely), the Pakistani parliament passed a resolution moved by the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) lawmaker Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani on the issue of the Holi, Diwali, and Easter holidays. Dr. Kumar who is also the patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council, emphasized the need for holidays for minorities since this will help shape the soft image of Pakistan globally. The Sindh government went a step ahead and officially announced a public holiday on March 24, 2016 for Holi celebrations even when the Federal government hadn’t issued any notification. The resolution was considered momentous in the wake of growing communal maltreatment and social segregation of religious minorities in the country.
In 2015, Sharif became the first-ever Prime Minister to attend the Diwali ceremony in Karachi. His outreach to Hindus living in Sindh could well be a political stroke to appeal to the Hindu community which largely votes for the Pakistan People Party (PPP). While addressing the ceremony he said: “Even I would like to be among you in the colorful event of Holi.” He also highlighted the role of Hindus in the development of the country and announced the construction of a hospital with the name of the Hindu spiritual leader Bhagat Kunwar.
Back in 2011, when the PMLN could only form a government in the biggest province, Punjab, Kamran Michael was picked to take charge of the finance department. Kamran presented a provincial budget which had never been done earlier by a non-Muslim in over six decades of the country’s history. Realizing his potential and to extend a minority-friendly narrative, Nawaz Sharif appointed him as the Federal Minister for Ports and Shipping in 2013, and he was given the Human Rights portfolio in 2016. His inclusion in the federal cabinet is notable since successive governments have remained hesitant in bestowing higher ranks to minorities in the near-past.
The appointment of a new Chief of Army Staff (COAS) very similar to his predecessor Raheel Sharif, who enjoyed widespread popularity and regard, was an onus for Nawaz Sharif. Just when few reports emerged about General Qamar Bajwa’s selection as COAS in November 2016, a slanderous campaign surfaced questioning his religious background. Propagandists called him an Ahmadi (it was later realized that only his wife has some Ahmadi relatives and he himself has no connection whatsoever), and his appointment would thus jeopardize the pro-Islamic Pakistan Army and be a blow to the religious mindset of its jihad-loving soldiers.
In the bizarre circumstances, selecting Bajwa as COAS was nothing less than triggering an unwanted and unprecedented debate. Sharif however, played a master stroke. Picking General Bajwa helped Sharif because he knew once Bajwa was appointed as COAS, nobody would ask about the four star general’s background, since the army still remains the most powerful institution in the country, and ultimately this would unveil the liberal side of the Prime Minister to those who don’t listen to extremist voices.
An intolerant society behaving on the lineage of hardcore Mullahs has an even bigger role in keeping a prejudicial approach towards minorities.
The southern province of the country, Sindh, is home to 1.39 million registered Hindu voters and accounts for 1.6 percent of the total population of Pakistan. They not only remain underprivileged but also suffer the menace of forced conversions and marriages by the powerful clerics and the provincial elite respectively. Furthermore, they have not had any legitimate mechanism of registering their marriages since 1947. After overcoming years of inertia, PMLN was able to pass the much awaited Hindu Marriage Bill in September 2016 from the lower house (the National Assembly). The Senate’s Functional Committee on Human Rights unanimously accepted the NA bill and thus paved the way for its approval from the upper house (Senate). PMLN-MP Dr. Ramesh Kumar who presented the bill in NA felt “proud to be Hindu Pakistani” once the bill was unanimously ratified in Senate Committee.
Back to Square One
The aforementioned steps are laudable, yet the Government’s claims of addressing minorities’ woes are insufficient. The Government alone is not responsible for their plight; rather, an intolerant society behaving on the lineage of hardcore Mullahs has an even bigger role in keeping a prejudicial approach towards minorities. The legacy of General Zia ul Haq, who mushroomed sectarian violence in his dictatorial regime, is alive today and there seems to be no slowdown in it. More irritating is the fact that even though the number of educated elite has soared, and the energetic media has highlighted communal misbehavior, incidents of maltreatment are equally on the rise.
The state’s crackdown against banned outfits has also proved inadequate since there is no stoppage in hatred and the slanderous campaign against minorities. The Federal Investigation Agency’s Cyber Crime Cell is functioning but against the wrong people. Instead of detaining hatemongers and those who post filthy and derogatory propaganda on social media, the FIA has apprehended individuals who question the military’s and security institutions’ work performance. While social media is now under extraordinary monitoring, and content is filtered like never before, most banned and sectarian accounts are still running freely under the nose of the state.
Forced conversions of Hindus in rural Sindh compelled the provincial government to change the law yet incidents are still continuously happening. Last month, a 16-year girl was abducted and forced to convert to Islam before being married to a landlord. Religious hardliners had threatened the government with widespread agitation soon after the anti-conversion bill was passed. The bill’s utility could be effective in urban areas but not in the suburbs and rural areas because of powerful landlords and scanty sources of mainstream news circulation. The Sindh government has meanwhile showed its willingness to review the bill due to the pressure mounted by religious clerics.
Let’s not forget the unaddressed woes of the traditionally underprivileged Christian community. Their recruitment into government departments and academic institutions is still subject to the “quota system” which unquestionably generates feelings of deprivation. They may not be forced to become Muslim but have been targets of the controversial blasphemy law of the state. Some 40 attacks of varying intensity were reported from 2012 to 2015 in which 14 Christians were charged with blasphemy. In 2013, the Joseph colony in Lahore, comprising 100 homes, suffered arson by an angry mob of more than 3,000 people. The colony was set on fire because the mob charged a Christian, Sawan Masih, of insulting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Later, a court imposed the death sentence on Masih, while the Anti-terrorism Court acquitted 115 people accused of violence in the same colony due to lack of evidence. There has been more intermittent news of Christians being manhandled or beaten brutally. This further deteriorates the unstable relationship between Christians and the majority.
For decades, religious clerics and textbooks have proudly highlighted the white colored part of the Pakistani flag which symbolizes the minorities in the country and their enjoyment of equal rights. However, the sharp surge in anti-minority activities in recent years has tarnished this white color. All steps taken to address minorities’ grievances have turned out to be cosmetic and ineffective. Society seems to be heading towards the highest levels of intolerance and prejudice while the state looks naive. The course of mainstreaming minorities is patchy and cannot entirely be done by state. An all-out effort by society, academics, and religious scholars is inevitable.
1. Nawaz Sharif resigned on July 28, 2017, as prime minister of Pakistan following a decision by the country’s Supreme Court to disqualify him from office. The ruling came after a probe into his family’s wealth following the 2015 Panama Papers scandal linking Sharif’s children to offshore companies.