June 26, 2020

By Zeeba Tahir Hashmi

Of late, the State seems to be genuinely interested in fostering a safer and more conducive environment for Pakistan’s religious minorities.

Their concerns have long remained unaddressed and unresolved so it is comforting to see various officials from our state including military higher-ups, mainstream Muslim religious leaders, politicians, and many public influencers now openly participating in what are multi-religious and multi-cultural gatherings.

The Kartarpur border reopening led to a lot of appreciation, even from other countries; today politicians are not shying away from publicly wishing Diwali, Holi, and Christmas to fellow citizens, and the Islamabad High Court has successfully rejected petitions filed against the construction of the Shri Krishna Temple in Islamabad. The foundation stone laid for this temple in the capital city itself was the first time such a gesture was made. This is despite the criticism that is coming in from radicals who have said it is an affront to Islam.

But despite this, in the context of global political dynamics and the importance of ‘softening the image of Pakistan’ there still lurks a doubt over the government’s sincerity – for as long as perpetrators are in power who have an upper hand over religious minorities and other vulnerable groups, nothing will change.  The acts which are frequently being witnessed in mainstream media today are reminiscent of a past era when such harmony was something regular, not “news”.

Regardless of a radical shift in Pakistani society which started with the anti-Ahmadiyya riots back in the 1950s and Shia-Sunni conflicts in 1980s, the rapidly growing incidents of mob-lynching over blasphemy allegations in the last 20 years, some community practices and rituals are the same even today, reflecting this diversity. The hardening of national narratives through a curriculum designed for schools and informal education institutes has slowly poisoned the very idea of a multicultural and tolerant Pakistan.

It is the youth that has been misled the most. Their indoctrination begins with the idea of ‘otherization’ of religious minorities who have lived on this land for centuries but was treated as if they were being granted a favor to live here. This kind of indoctrination has carried with it, a heavy toll on the youth, who are systemically made to think less favorably about people belonging to any faith system other than their own.

The sincerity of the government then, especially with regard to the equal treatment of minorities deserves to be questioned, and one can hope that the concern being shown today remains consistent.

One of the biggest issues is that of forced conversions, which the state desperately tries to downplay as simply being willful marriages – between Hindu girls and Muslim boys. They remain a constant challenge to eliminate from society. The state machinery including in both mainstream and social media, stresses on the lack of evidence in forceful conversions of minor girls when their marriages are challenged in the courts.

Advocate Shanker Maghwar, who looks into the cases of abduction of minor Hindu girls in Umerkot, Mirpurkhas, and Tharparkar in Sindh, looks at the issue differently. He recently expressed his dismay at a statement by All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat, a Hindu representative body, which claimed that a majority of Hindu families concoct charges of forced conversions to cover for their “honor” when their girls elope for love.

“Such unfounded statements coming from the Hindu Panchayat become a serious obstacle for us when cases of forced conversions are being heard in the courts of law,” he said. Along with other members of his community, he is of the view that the All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat does not have the representation of Dalits, hence their grievances remain largely remain unaddressed. The issue further gets compounded by the bonded labor economics in these areas, where the landless peasants become more susceptible to all forms of exploitation when they are unable to pay back their loans.

In the jargon of constitutional safeguards for the religious minorities, Shanker claims that Article 36 of minority rights under Principles of Policy often gets quoted by the judges in a courtroom, as a way to undermine fundamental rights enshrined for all citizens from articles 8-28. Where article 25 under the chapter of fundamental rights mentions that all citizens are equal before the state, Shanker questions the logic for having a separate article for religious minorities.

How the issue of forced conversions was dealt by the Provincial Assembly in Sindh is also a shameful reminder of how the state evades its responsibility to ensure that minorities are safeguarded by law. Following Rinkle Kumari’s forced conversion case, MPA Nand Kumar Goklani, presented a draft on Protection of Minorities Bill in 2016, which was initially passed by the Sindh Assembly.

However, subsequent to a  strong reaction from the radical clerics, the then Governor of Sindh was advised not to sign it and was pressured into sending it back for revisions subject to the advice of Council of Islamic Ideology. The CII raised objections to the provision of the age of conversion to Islam and considered it against Islamic injunctions.

The bill was ultimately revised and was ready to be presented in the Sindh Assembly for the second time, but was shot down by the Assembly in 2019, a majority of members belonged to the left-leaning PPP party. The very idea of legislating on conversions was killed in the province owing to the street power of the clergy who threatened with mob violence.

The unchecked power dynamics of the radical right not only took away the political strength of the minorities but also helped create polarities between the clergy and those holding on to the fundamental rights.  This has been happening in Sindh for ages now, where the Hindu families find it difficult to access law and demand justice for the lives of their children getting destroyed by abductions, forced marriages and lifelong stigma when they return to their families, completely shattered and traumatized.

The friendly visuals do leave a lasting impression of a happy environment that comes in stark comparison to how Muslims and Dalits are being treated in neighboring India, but they are not enough to cover the systematic injustices religious minorities feel at home.  Even if there are concerns shown about Pakistanis flocking to safer shores to avoid persecution, the mainstream media may set this aside as vile propaganda to bring disrepute to Pakistan and its state.

However, one thing that we can expect to have a good impact from the building of the temple is that Hindus will now feel confident in having an endorsement by the state of their right to pray freely in the worship places, just as Jinnah would have liked to see in his Pakistan.

Zeeba T. Hashmi is a Peace Education Consultant based in Lahore. She can be reached at zeeba.hashmi@gmail.com