Status of Minorities: a tale of two neighbours

Pakistan and India, these two neighbours, got Independence in mid-August 1947. Today 65 years after Independence, where do these two major countries of the Subcontinent stand vis-à-vis their religious minorities, is the question which we need to answer to ensure a better and more democratic area.

On August 11, 2012, over 50000 people, mainly Muslims, assembled in Azad Maidan to protest against the ill-treatment of Muslims in Assam and Myanmar. After some speeches full of provocation and after display of some provocative posters, a section turned violent and vented its ire against the media for not covering the plight of Assam’s Muslims displaced in the July violence involving Bodos and Muslims. Needless to say, in Assam violence nearly 80 people have been killed and over 4 lakh people, mostly Muslims, have been displaced right under the nose of the Congress-ruled government. The Azad Maidan mob burned a few OB vans. The mob also attacked the police. Humiliated-molested female police personnel and beat up other police personnel. While controlling the violence the police did the firing, which lead to the death of two young men. In the whole scuffle many a police personnel was injured. Now, the Raza Academy, the organiser, has issued an apology saying the meeting was infiltrated by provocateurs. Still the organisers cannot shun their responsibility for this whole tragedy. The protest has always to be on democratic lines, non-violent and the speeches in meetings have to be moderate. Hate speech and inciting mobs is not excusable on any condition.

In the same week news came that nearly 300 Hindus have crossed over into India from Pakistan. Ostensibly, they have come here for pilgrimage but some of them have stated that they will not go back as they don’t feel safe in Pakistan. Most of these Hindus are from Sind and Baluchistan. There are reports of abduction and forced conversion of Hindu girls there and the religious minorities have to lead a life of second class citizens. The religious minorities persecuted in Pakistan are not just Hindus. Sikhs and Christians and Shias and Ahmadiyas, a sect of Islam, too are persecuted.

Where do we find ourselves today nearly six decades down the line after we committed ourselves to democracy and secular principles? India came into being as a secular democratic state and even Pakistan. which was formed in the name of Islam for the Muslim majority areas of British India, began with secular principles as enunciated in the oft-quoted 11th August 1947 speech of Qaed-e-Azam Jinnah. In that speech, he had said that the state has nothing to do with the citizens’ religion, people are free to go to their mosques, temples and churches or whatever, as it is their personal matter. He also said that the white colour in the Pakistani flag represents minorities. Still the logic of communalism was built-in in the whole system. One can make a secular speech but the social base which had resulted in the formation of Pakistan, the one consisting of feudal elements was intact. Mere secular speeches don’t change the social reality.

Communalism caught up in Pakistan in due course of time and in the late seventies, with Ziaul Haq at the helm, mullahs came to the forefront. The Mullah-Military complex backed up by the United States, which had a substantial say in the affairs of Pakistan, violated every letter and the core spirit of the speech of Mr. Jinnah to the extent that today even Shias and Ahmadiyas are as much victims of religious intolerance and it is getting reflected in their political status in the country.

India with Gandhi and Nehru as the major pillars of shaping the values of Indian national movement, were unshakable in their commitment to secularism. Gandhi, the devout Hindu and Nehru the atheist, had the vision of a state totally committed to respecting the people of all religious denominations, while keeping a distance from those trying to bring in matters related to faith in the ambit of the policies of the state. Nehru, while doing this, realized two major handicaps. One that, while our constitution is secular, the society is in the grip of religiosity, so he found this as an obstacle in the full implementation of secular policies. The second flaw he found was that in his party, which was founded on the grounds of secular values, has been infiltrated by communal elements. There was no one to heed to his warning, and in due course many an action of some Congress leaders were indistinguishable from those of the communal elements, those forcing the country in the direction of religious nationalism.

The health of democracy in any country has to be gauged by the extent of security and equity minorities enjoy in the country. Through complicated mechanisms, the influence of communal elements has risen exponentially, especially during the last three decades.

The whole trajectory of these two countries has been very different. While in Pakistan, there was always a space for communalism to creep in comfortably, the task of communal politics became simpler with the country falling in the grip of military dictatorships time and again. The US intervention and American policies in Afghanistan, in particular, added fuel to this fire.

In India, the opportunism and fallacies of the electoral system (based on first past the pole), the rising anxiety of sections of society, the successful effort of communal forces to inject the fear of small minorities into the minds of the big majority and politics around emotive issues like Ram Temple completed the picture. Today, while Muslims are 13.8% in population, their percentage amongst victims of violence is 90%. Today, they are standing at the bottom of socio-economic indices. Sachar Committee has demonstrated this fact beyond any shadow of doubt.

In Pakistan, the percentage of Hindu minorities has declined over time and their security and social status is abominable. The injustices on minorities in one country are no justification for heaping of injustices on some other minorities in another country. The reactionary communalism is used by political forces in their own ways. The communal forces in India look at the Hindus emigrating from Pakistan and the Assam violence as an attack on Hindus. To some people in Pakistan, the atrocities against Muslims in India provide a handle to further intimidate the Hindus there. In response to the Babri demolition, many a temple were razed to dust in Pakistan.

All said and done, there is a gross contrast between the situation in Pakistan and India. Despite setbacks, the secular democratic values remain the bedrock of the Indian system, though compromised during recent decades. In Pakistan, on the other hand, democracy has enjoyed a marginal value all along. There are efforts to root democracy in Pakistan but the obstacles are immense. The common factor is the suffering of minorities though the degree of suffering is different in both these countries.  

Where will all this lead us to? The communal issue is a big brake on the social development of the two countries. The values of affirmative action for weaker sections of society, the going an extra mile to protect them and to bring them up in social area, is what is needed in both the countries.  

Sixty five years after coming out from the yoke of colonialism, it is time we remembered the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, the principles which guided our freedom movement. In India, there is an urgent need to reform our electoral system to reflect our social and political needs. Communal violence and discrimination against minorities is at the cost of immense loss to our national ethos and humanism. Now is the time to check it and reaffirm in practice those values which made us India, home of all religions and races. It is imperative for Pakistan to revert to the values outlined in the speech of Qaid-e Azam on 11th August 1947. Decline in the percentage of minorities and their continued exodus from Pakistan is a great insult to the founder of Pakistan. (Issues in Secular Politics)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 September 2012 on page no. 6

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