Token Celebration: Minorities in Pakistan
On the occasion of the 69th anniversary of founding father Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s historic speech to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947, the government of Pakistan observed ‘Minorities Day.’ In his speech, Jinnah said, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”
The speech was welcomed by the minorities because they believed it meant Jinnah had unequivocally declared Pakistan would be a liberal and pluralistic country where minorities would have equal rights. And at that time there were a sizeable number of religious communities – 15 per cent of the population (signified by the white portion of the flag), including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis and Ahmadis – that constituted the minorities of Pakistan. But any sense of well-being rendered by Jinnah’s speech slowly began to dissipate thereafter, as a spate of injustices against the minority communities began to create a deep sense of insecurity among them. Those who could, fled; others were converted and made to assimilate. Today Pakistan’s population comprises only three percent minorities.
To try and right such wrongs perhaps, the Pakistan People’s Party government decided to dedicate a day to minorities in 2009, and the tradition has been ongoing ever since.
During various celebrations on August 11, this year – as every year since 2009 – government ministers and even some minority leaders tried to present a bright image about the minorities’ situation in Pakistan. “In the last 70 years, minorities have never faced any injustice in Pakistan; they are safer here compared to other countries,” said Federal Minister for Human Rights, Senator Kamran Michael, a Christian, while addressing a ceremony in Islamabad. This, despite the harsh reality of the treatment meted out to Christians often falsely accused of blasphemy, to Hindus being forced to convert, to Hazaras being brutally mowed down, and to Ahmadis across the board.
Christian MNA Khalil George of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz begged to differ with Kamran Michael. He stated quite emphatically, “Non-Muslims think they are not equal citizens in Pakistan.” Not surprisingly then, many non-Muslims did not celebrate the day earmarked as ‘Minorities Day.’ Some minority rights groups, in fact, even organised protest rallies against the present climate of growing intolerance and violence against minorities. “There was nothing to celebrate – just examine the increasingly violent attacks, religious discrimination and denial of basic rights of minority groups by the state,” said Joseph Francis, a Christian political leader from Lahore.
This sentiment was echoed during a seminar in Islamabad by Asif Khan, a member of the Shaheed Bhutto Foundation (SBF) board. He contended that spaces in all spheres across the country were shrinking for the minorities. In an editorial in The Daily Times, he was quoted as saying, “In Pakistan, minorities feel insecure, and this is the result of the discriminatory policies of the state and society towards them. There are numerous examples of injustices that are committed against members of minority communities on an almost daily basis across the country –and the government does not seem to care.”
However, on Minorities Day, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif claimed the incumbent government was seriously concerned about ensuring equal rights for all minority communities in Pakistan. A week earlier, while chairing a meeting on internal security in Islamabad, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had made a similar claim – just hours after two Hazara Shia Muslims were shot dead by the Taliban. Those killings did not seem to register with the prime minister – but that was not unusual. The ongoing murderous assaults on the Hazara minority community by the Taliban and other anti-Shia terrorist organisations have gone largely unnoticed and unmourned in government circles.
Most recently, on September 2, a Christian colony at the outskirts of Peshawar came under attack early morning, by the militants of TTP-Ahrar faction. The terrorists entered the locality after killing one and injuring two civilian security guards. Prompt response by the army, Frontier Corps and police averted the terrorists’ plan and all four attackers were killed. A tragic situation was averted. Before this, in September 2013, when the federal government was having talks with the Taliban factions, a twin suicide bombing at the All Saints Church in Peshawar resulted in the killing of 127 people. It was the deadliest attack against Christians in Pakistan.
What is a great cause for concern is the fact that Pakistan’s minority communities not only face danger from militants and terrorists, but often even from their fellow citizens who consider them inferior. The genesis of this attitude lies in the state’s philosophy, which is based on religion. Despite the Quaid’s avowals, since the birth of the country the state has been directly or indirectly promoting an ideology which makes non-Muslims second-class citizens in their own land. When hundreds of Muslims attack a Christian locality because of an alleged blasphemy accusation, it is not an act of just a handful of militants. It is a clear reflection of the mindset of the Pakistani/Muslim public and the general attitude of local society, which is increasingly becoming less secular and more insular. More and more the message is that Pakistan was created only for Muslims.
As former President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan, Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha stated, “Pakistan has become a state only for Muslims.”
On Pakistan’s Independence Day this year, some WhatsApp messages reiterated this sentiment. Pakistan flags appeared on screen without the white stripe denoting minorities. Small wonder then that those with the option of migrating, exercise it. Today the white stripe on the Pakistan flag should actually be reduced to a sliver, given the statistics of the country’s minorities.
According to Farahnaz Ispahani, a Pakistani scholar, Pakistan’s founding father wanted to make a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims, not an Islamic state. The first Governor General of Pakistan, Jinnah, manifested his pluralistic approach by appointing Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Hindu, the Federal Education and Law Minister, and Sir Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, an Ahmadi, the Foreign and Commonwealth Relations Minister. In the first two years, Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly sessions and cabinet meetings were held without any religious symbolism.
The nature of governance, however, soon changed. In 1949, just a year after Jinnah’s death, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan introduced the Objectives Resolution. That resolution tried to establish Pakistani nationhood on the principle of religious conformity, and thereafter, religion took centrestage in Pakistani society through state policies and the state’s direct interventions. As a consequence, the non-Muslims’ status as equal citizens of the state was threatened, and began to diminish. In 1956, when the country adopted its current moniker, the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan,’ another significant change was introduced in the lives of non-Muslims. And later, the ‘Islamisation’ process, introduced and stringently enforced by the late dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977 – 88), further strengthened the process of discrimination against the minorities.
The ill-treatment against minorities is two-fold: social intolerance and biased legislation. These forms of discrimination do not operate in isolation; rather, they work together and reinforce one another. And so minorities face hostility from both sides, the state and society. The law of the land contributes to the discrimination against the minorities community. Though the constitution of Pakistan guarantees equal rights for every citizen under Article 25, the same supreme document of the country prohibits a non-Muslim from becoming president or prime minister. Article 41, clause 2 of the Constitution, says, “A person shall not be qualified for election as President, unless he is a Muslim…” The same standard applies to other high positions within the government. This constitutional provision has a trickle-down effect and causes institutional prejudice against and economic disadvantage for the minorities. As a result, Christians and low-caste Hindus are often forced into low-paying menial positions such as agriculture workers, sweepers and brick-kiln workers. Many others are trapped in the net of bonded labour. Such a situation leads to further social stigmatisation and reinforces the minorities’ economic marginalisation. A graphic example: both religious groups have difficulty finding jobs in restaurants or working as street vendors because most Muslims refuse to accept food cooked or touched by them. Consequently, the majority of them live in abject poverty, and are forced to face the worst form of social and economic discrimination and political isolation.
Yet, despite all these challenges, minority communities are playing a major role in the development of the country. For example, Christians continue to make significant contributions to the country’s health, education and social development sectors. Ironically, while the community has a long service in promoting education across the country, its own literacy rate is just 19 per cent compared to Pakistan’s overall literacy rate of 58 per cent.
Among the minorities, Christian and Hindu women are victims of the worst form of religious persecution. Apart from other forms of violence, the number of forced conversion cases of Hindu and Christian women is rapidly mounting. The Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan report that every year around 700 Hindu women are abducted, forcibly converted, and then forcibly married to Muslim men, usually to their abductors. Christian girls face a similar situation. And yet the state is a silent spectator on this critical issue, clearly with no appetite to address it.
In addition to social intolerance, minorities face a more threatening kind of persecution: being accused of blasphemy. Aasiya Bibi’s case is a prime example of this. An illiterate and poor Pakistani Christian woman and mother of five, Aasiya was accused of blasphemy in 2009 during an argument with her Muslim fellow field workers, who refused to drink from a bucket of water which she had touched because they said she had defiled it because of being Christian. She was convicted by a Pakistani court, received a death sentence, and is now on death row. Both, Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, a progressive Muslim, and the Christian Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated for speaking up for Aasiya Bibi.
The media, especially Urdu language newspapers and magazines, and public schools’ syllabi are also playing a negative role in intensifying intolerance against minorities. A study conducted by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute Pakistan has pointed out that textbooks, particularly those of Social Studies, Civics, Urdu and English, contain a distorted presentation of national history. The views in these textbooks encourage prejudice and bigotry towards women and religious minorities, glorify war and incite violence.
The dean of social sciences at Szabist, Dr Riaz Sheikh, maintains that the social construction of Pakistani society is based on religion and a hatred of people of other faiths. “This is why societal marginalisation in Pakistan has increased where the majority has the power over minority communities, whose space in society has shrunk,” he says. Not surprisingly then, the Minority Rights Group International (MRG) categorises Pakistan as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for religious minorities.
Against this backdrop, there is clearly no quick and easy solution to rectify the situation for minorities. But even though the situation is not encouraging, there are still some signs of hope. After terrorist attacks on churches in Peshawar, 2013, and Lahore, 2014, Muslim members of civil society made human chains outside churches in many cities during Sunday prayer services to show solidarity with their fellow Pakistani Christians. In its June 2014 verdict on a suo moto case pertaining to the Peshawar church attack in 2013, the Supreme Court of Pakistan said, “We find that the incident of desecration of places of worship of minorities could [have been] warded off if the authorities concerned had taken preventive measures at the appropriate time.” It is the responsibility of the federal and the provincial governments to take necessary actions to implement the judgment of the Supreme Court. Sadly, neither the federal government nor the Punjab provincial government, where 80 per cent of Pakistan’s Christians live, seem to have the will to do this.
Minorities in fact, nurture little hope in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a conservative Muslim whose success has depended to a large extent on the support of the conservative, religious vote bank.
Most of the major attacks on the Christian community have occurred in the Punjab, where Prime Minister Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif has remained chief minister for many years. Punjab is, in fact, the seat of many sectarian terrorist organisations, and despite concrete evidence of their involvement in terrorism, no action has been taken against them.
The government needs to align all laws which would help promote tolerance and religious freedom in the country with international conventions. Time has proven that the existing laws and policies have not brought any good to the country and its people: rather they have divided the nation. On Minorities’ Day, minorities called for a just political system based on democratic values, the curbing of hate speech, reform of the school curriculum – especially that of history books – a cessation of forced conversions of minority women to Islam, a repeal of the blasphemy laws, reforms in the electoral system, amendments to the Constitution and equal representation in the political system.
If Pakistan wants to become an honourable member of the international community, these are the fundamental steps required to be taken. Democratic voices which are struggling for a pluralistic society should be heard. During an event on Minorities’ Day, Jennifer Jagjivan, Executive Director of the Christian Study Centre, Rawalpindi, said that merely celebrating a ‘Minorities’ Day’ meant very little. Undoing minority-unfriendly policies and laws could, however, translate into a real celebration of Pakistan’s ‘other’ citizens.
Aftab Alexander Mughal is the editor of the Minority Concern of Pakistan and former National Executive Secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of Pakistan.