May issue 2018
White into Black
Holi, that wonderfully colourful Hindu festival heralding the onset of spring, recently came and went in a flash, barely noticed here in Pakistan. There was little sharing of the joys of Holi; not even the token platitudes – “Hindus/Christians/Parsis are our brothers, we are all Pakistanis,” etc — routinely voiced by our high-ups, although they are personally much in evidence at Holi/ Diwali / Christmas / Nauroz occasions. Photo ops maybe?
Additionally, recently there has been little talk of interfaith harmony. Pakistan is veering even further away from its once proclaimed and practiced principles of pluralism and inclusivity.
Way back in 1947, the white strip on Pakistan’s flag was a cheerful marker symbolically representing non-Muslims, and marking the unity and commitment of all citizens to their new country.
Census data reveals that the once-large, vibrant minority populations of Hindus, Christians Parsis, Jews and Bahais have dwindled significantly, some drastically. Jews, once an integral part of the subcontinent, are now all gone. Today, even the majority population is divided by many schisms, while religious minorities face a new and growing reality, especially if they’re poor: ie. keep a low profile, try not to draw the wrath of the majority, get used to being vilified, treated as lesser beings, denied decent jobs, limited only to menial tasks – and always at risk of being subject to an inequitable legal system
Pakistan has forgotten the meaning of the white strip in its national flag – that has clearly faded from the national memory.
Accounts of the Indian subcontinent’s freedom struggle reveal that numerous non-Muslims played pivotal roles in those memorable years but, tragically, they remain unrecognised. In those early days, Jinnah had assured all religious minority communities that their freedom and equal rights in the newly established state would be a given. In turn, minorities strongly supported the Quaid-e-Azam and the Muslim League at every critical juncture.
The country’s first Law Minister, a Hindu, Jogendra Nath Mandal, was appointed by the Quaid himself, and Hindus had no reason to think that the future would be any different. They decided voluntarily to support Pakistan and make every effort for the new country’s progress.
Sir Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan, an Ahmadi, was Pakistan’s first foreign minister. He was a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council – from 1935 to 1941 – at a time when the Lahore Resolution was first drafted. The Resolution was passed at the historic meeting of the All India Muslim League on March 23, 1940. It was supported by minority leaders such as Diwan Bahadur Sittia Parkash Singha, Chaudhry Chandu Lal, CE Gibbon, F.E. Chaudhry, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Fazal Ilahi, Alfried Purshad and S.S. Albert – all of whom were present at the meeting.
But disillusionment soon set in: Singha learnt that only a Muslim could be Speaker of the Assembly. A vote of no confidence was moved against him on the grounds of his religion. He was shattered: the no-confidence vote affected him deeply. He had never expected that in the new Pakistan he would be punished for being Christian, especially given his years of devoted service. To him, Jinnah’s well-known words were a covenant between the Quaid and the minorities, who had supported him in the creation of Pakistan.
The betrayal of these ideals and Singha’s forced exit from the Assembly so broke his heart, that he fell ill, dying just a month after the death of the Quaid.
Over the years, countless institutions and buildings were established by non-Muslims. Every Karachiite loves Clifton’s Jehangir Kothari Parade, although it is now a shambles in comparison to its former glory. In Sindh, the contributions of Zoroastrians were significant. Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta was Karachi’s first mayor in the newly-conceived country. He was instrumental in welcoming Mohajirs from India and helping them settle in Karachi.
Lahore’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Karachi’s DJ Science College, established by lawyers Dayaram and Jeevanand, and Rawalpindi’s Forman Christian College, are all familiar names, established by members of the minority communities.
The critically important roles of education, health and medicare were spearheaded by non-Muslims.
But the journey towards communalism continued, even though numerous examples of contributions by non-Muslims in every field continued simultaneously. A prime example: Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate, Professor Abdus Salam, was an Ahmadi.
Other prominent non-Muslim Pakistanis in recent times include Supreme Court Chief Justice A.R. Cornelius, Justice Rana Bhagwandas, Justice Dorab Patel, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN, Jamsheed Marker, Major General Julian Peter, Maj Gen Israel Khokhar, Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry, Air Commodore Władysław Turowicz, and the irreplaceable Dr Ruth Pfau.
Efforts have been made to rectify a historical narrative that ignores the contributions made by minorities in the formation of Pakistan. However, little success has been achieved. A documentary film last year highlighted the contributions of non-Muslims during and after the Pakistan Movement: the then Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, referring to the significance of August 11 as a special day for religious minorities, recalled the Quaid’s memorable words at the new country’s first Constituent Assembly, that all would be equal citizens of this new country, that no Pakistani would be discriminated against on the basis of religion, caste or creed. The minister added, “Minorities have played a vital role in the creation and development of Pakistan, and are proud of their services.” He remained optimistic: “We want to give a clear message to the world that Pakistani society is based on religious harmony, social justice, and human equality.”
Shortly after, on March 2, 2011, this deeply committed, patriotic man was assassinated, like many others, including former Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, because he tried to get justice for a poor Christian woman charged – erroneously, it is widely acknowledged – for blasphemy.
“Over the past few months we have witnessed an alarming increase in violent incidents of intolerance and extremism in our country,” laments Cecil Shane Chaudhary, Director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, Lahore. “Some of the most recent incidents include the suicide attack on Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, the inhuman treatment of Patras and Sajid Masih, the brutal murder of Suneel Masih at the Services Hospital Lahore and the incidents of target killings of Christians in Quetta, in less than two weeks.”
The worst hit are the poor – as exemplified by three tragic cases. Sanitation worker Irfan Masih inhaled poisonous gas while trying to unblock a sewer. He fainted, was hauled out and rushed to a hospital. And then no one would treat him, not because they didn’t have the requisite knowledge or medicines, but because the doctor on duty, in his heightened state of purity, refused to touch a man covered in filth. Irfan Masih died because he remained untreated at the hospital. Irfan Masih’s was not the last such death – in all probability, there will be more such tragedies, and a heartless society will read the report, and move on.
The second more recent case is that of Sharoon Masih, a bright Christian boy studying in Burewala Boys’ Model High School. As the only non-Muslim, he faced constant discrimination, snide comments, taunts and even went thirsty, all day, every day. No matter how great the heat, he dared not drink water at school. And yet one day he was beaten so badly, he died of his injuries right there, in the classroom. Incomprehensible though it may be, neither the class teacher, nor the principal arrived at the scene to stop the violence. The case is now in court, and Sharoon’s family awaits justice.
A third harrowing story is of Patras and Sajid Masih, which “exposed the severe brutality of the state machinery, and the vulnerability of the marginalised” (Asif Aqeel, The News, March 4, 2018). They were accused under the blasphemy law Section 295-C, and taken to the FIA Centre. Sajid was tortured, and ordered to perform sex with his cousin Patras. Rather than do that, he jumped out of the fourth floor window, suffering critical injuries.
Justice? What justice?
Kim Ghattas of the BBC states that hundreds of Christian and Hindu girls are forcibly converted to Islam each year. In the face of growing radicalisation and violence, non-Muslims have little recourse but to escape: reportedly, Hindu families left last year in droves from Sindh to escape abduction and forced conversions of their vulnerable young daughters.
The only non-Muslims who escape injustice are the educated, upwardly mobile. Paradoxically, there’s a very peculiar mix of pride in studying at “English medium” Convent schools (established and run by Christians), while simultaneously denigrating poorer non-Muslims. The situation smacks of rank hypocrisy. Ironically, that Convent school education puts people in a “class” above the rest.
Is it any wonder that non-Muslims now prefer to find new homes abroad? Thousands have left, and of those who can afford to, many more will probably leave.
Pakistan has forgotten all that the national flag stood for – its white strip has dimmed. Pakistanis have forgotten that the first Constituent Assembly, where Jinnah delivered his oft-quoted speech of August 11, 1947, was chaired by Jagdish Nath Mandal, a most able Hindu lawyer. They’ve forgotten that the Christian vote at the United All-India Parliamentary Assembly that went in Pakistan’s favour, was cast by the first Speaker of the Assembly, a Christian, Satya Prakash Singha.
Successive governments have ensured that all positive mention of non-Muslims in school textbooks has been wiped out. After the first few years of unified living, there was a systematic downgrading of all non-Muslims, with the Zia years merely worsening the situation.
Non-Muslims have been reduced to nonentities – and many have absorbed society’s degrading behaviour towards them, including all that’s being said to and about them: they have internalised the inferiority. There are numerous examples; we’re all aware of them. Caste-ism and achut (untouchable) have entered the Pakistani lexicon, because that is what large numbers of non-Muslims are now regarded as, ‘achut,’ ‘choora’ (sweeper). Why else would Aasia Bibi’s quarrel with her co-worker have even begun? In countless households, those who keep the homes of Muslims clean, are the same people regarded as ‘unclean’ and untouchable.
Well-reputed national and international groups, such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Human Rights Watch, report the steady deterioration of the condition of religious minorities, with the government unwilling, or unable, to provide protection against attacks by extremists or to rein in abuses committed by its own security forces.
Attacks against non-Muslim communities in the past decade include the 2009 Gojra riots, the 2013 Joseph Colony riot and the 2013 Gujranwala riot. Recent anti-Shia violence includes the February 2012 Kohistan Shia massacre, the August 2012 Mansehra Shia massacre, and the particularly deadly February 2013 Quetta bombings. The Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan was targeted in the similarly deadly May 2010 attacks on Ahmadi places of worship in Lahore; the Hazaras in Balochistan continue to face persecution, as do all Shias. Recent attacks include the deadly Abbas Town massacre and the equally deadly Safoora Goth massacre in Karachi, among so many more.
That official intolerance is growing alongside societal and cultural bigotry, is manifest in the ruling of the Islamabad High Court: special ID cards identifying non-Muslims.
What next? A yellow star? The one unexpected bright star on this depressing horizon is the election of Senator Krishna Kumari Kohli, a Hindu Bheel. Other than that, Pakistan has failed its non-Muslim citizens.