International

Pakistan is becoming a Hell for its Minorities

Were he to come back to life and revisit the country he founded with his indomitable grit and determination, Mohammad Ali Jinnah would be a very depressed man. He’d have difficulty recognising the land he’d bequeathed to his ungrateful followers, for they have turned it upside-down and made a mockery of the blue-print he’d given them for a forward-looking and vigorously secular state.

Jinnah was a man of contradictions, no doubt. He fought for Pakistan on a religion-oriented agenda and argued that Muslims of India were different from its majority on the basis of their religious beliefs. However, once Pakistan’s creation was assured he donned a secular mantle and gave a progressive template to his new state. He articulated his agenda for Pakistan in categorically secular terms even before the birth of the country-three days before, in fact, on August 11, 1947-in addressing its Constituent Assembly. He wanted to see a Pakistan in which all of its citizens would be equal irrespective of their creed, colour or religious beliefs. He went so far as to insist that in his ideal Pakistan people would cease to be Muslims, or Hindus or Christians-not in the literal sense, he said-but in respect of their being citizens of a democratic state.

However, Jinnah’s Pakistan, today at 65, seems just the antithesis of what its great architect wanted it to be. It’s in the hands of fanatical obscurantists, Jihadis, bigots and murderers who aren’t prepared to let anyone not in sync with their dogmas and beliefs to live. Murder is their tool of trade and blood-letting is their creed. Not to mention Pakistan’s non-Muslim minorities, these terrorists aren’t even in favour of letting the sizeable Shia community of Muslims (at least 15 to 20 % in Pakistan’s 180 million) live or survive as citizens in ‘their Land of the Pure.’

Nothing could’ve brought Pakistan’s tryst with an aggravated paranoia and religious bigotry into a sharper focus than the mass murder, in broad daylight, of a bus load of Shia passengers at Lalusar, a place in the idyllic valley of Gilgit-Baltistan, nestling in the lap of the Karakoram Mountains, last August 16.

The bus was stopped by the terrorists masquerading as security services agents. 21 Shias were separated from the rest of the passengers with the help of names appearing on their national identity cards; they were then shot in cold blood with a bestiality that could easily shame the beasts of the jungle.

This wasn’t an isolated incident of its kind, not the first wanton massacre of Shias, and most certainly not will it be the last in the series of mayhem that has been going on for several years. As Pakistan sinks ever-deeper under the rising tide of religious orthodoxy, bigotry and fanaticism, all those segments of its population perceived by dogmatic gurus of radicalism as being outside their pale of Islam, are being dealt out very bad hands. It may not be an exaggeration to say that they’re coming increasingly under existential threats.

The minority Shias are being targeted for special treatment, particularly in the ‘wild-west’ provinces of Baluchistan and Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa-both bordering with Afghanistan-because they aren’t regarded as ‘Muslims’ in the book of the bigots. Wall-chalking in every major city of Pakistan has been denouncing them for years as Kafirswho should be removed from the face of Pakistan under religious injunctions (fatwas) handed out by the zealots among the clergy.

Hundreds of Shias have been mercilessly butchered in targeted killings in this year alone; the latest victim of this rampant blood-letting was a sitting judge of Baluchistan who was gunned down-along with three of his security guards-in Quetta as ManmohanSingh and Asif Ali Zardari confabulated in Tehran on the sidelines of the NAM summit.

In Baluchistan alone-according to the database maintained by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP)-over 90 Shiites have been killed in 34 incidents of targeted-killing since the beginning of 2012.

Overall, according to SATP, Pakistan has recorded 2,642 sectarian attacks since 1989, with a casualty toll of 3,963 innocent victims of a religious frenzy apparently out of control.

The Shias may’ve been targeted by fanatical terrorists of the Taliban or their Pakistani templates-Sipah-e-Sahaban or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, both rabidly indoctrinated by the Wahabiphilosophy of religious intolerance and exclusivism. However, sectarianism is apparently running deep even among those Sunni Muslims belonging to Pakistan’s majority sectwho may not condone of or subscribe to blood-letting of minorities. A recent survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre found that 50 percent of Sunnis in Pakistan believed Shias to be non-Muslims. This contrasts sharply with even Afghanistan-commonly perceived as the hub of Muslim fanaticism-where 83 percent of Sunnis accept Shias as Muslims.

But while Shias of Pakistan may still have a lot of bleeding hearts crying over their plight, the non-Muslim minorities have far fewer voices drawing the outside world’s attention to their imperilled existence in an ‘ideological state’ whose denizens take pride in their religious moorings as a hallmark of their national identity.

The western world anchored in its Christian faith despite its façade of secularism-or the separation of church from the state-has recently been given an axe to grind with Pakistan over the treatment being meted out to a 14-year old Christian girl accused of disparaging the Qur’an, and burning its pages in an act of sacrilege. The case has raised the alarm in several western governments including the Vatican.

The accused girl, Rimsha, has been clinically diagnosed for suffering from Down’s syndrome. A medical board constituted by the government has determined that her ‘mental age’ is considerably lower than her ‘chronological age,’ But the girl also belongs to that class of ‘wretched- of- the- earth’ in Pakistan’s exploitative and highly stratified feudal society which is supposed to remain faceless and go voiceless.

Rimsha has been accused of Blasphemy, which in simple language translates as intentionally showing disrespect to Islamic canons and icons. This particular law was promulgated under Pakistan’s most fanatical and bigoted military ruler, General ZiaulHaq, and has been a source of controversy and disputation in the community of jurists and legal experts. However, it has been a boon to religious fundamentalists and orthodox clergy.

The Blasphemy law has been routinely abused in Pakistan to settle old scores and perpetrate vendettas. However, such is the galloping hold of religious bigotry that anyone, high or low, daring to question its relevance in Pakistan’s deeply divided-along so many fault-lines-social ambience is dealt with vengeance and brutality. Murder is the name of the game; blood sport is the preferred choice of bigots against anyone daring to call their bluff.

Salman Tasir is so far the most celebrated case of this jungle’s law operating in Pakistan with impunity; he was Governor of Punjab when he was gunned down, in January 2011, in broad daylight in Islamabad, by his own body-guard. Tasir had raised the hackles of the fanatics by suggesting the need to revisit the Blasphemy law.

A few weeks after Tasir’s murder, ShehbazBhatti, a junior minister of religious affairs hailing from the Christian minority of Pakistan, was likewise gunned down-again in the capital, Islamabad-by gunmen who haven’t been caught, to date. Bhatti’s ‘crime’ was the same in the eyes of his assailants: he’d proposed amendments in the Blasphemy law.

The incumbent Pakistani ambassador in Washington, Sherry Rehman, was quickly whisked out of the country and given her current assignment when she started receiving death threats for daring to move a bill in the parliament to suitably amend the law.

But the accusation against an unlettered and mentally handicapped girl is so outrageous and preposterous that even the head of the All Pakistan Ulema Council (a powerful figure in the clerical hierarchy) AllamaTahirAshrafi,has been forced to denounce her torture-and the persecution of her community on trumped-up charges-as “law of the jungle.”

However, despite a rising crescendo of condemnation from human rights activists of the blatant haunting of a minor girl, the courts of law have not yet found it feasible to release her from police custody on bail. Those dispensing justice are also in awe of the fanatics and scared of judgments that may raise their ire. This is despite the latest development in the case where the cleric leading the prayers in the mosque of the village where Rimsha lived-on the periphery of Islamabad-has been detained by the police for framing the girl by slipping pages of the Qur’an in the garbage dump scrounged by the girl.

The obvious apathy of Pakistani authorities to act decisively and swiftly has impelled the Geneva-based World Council of Churches has taken a strong exception to the situation: in its communique on the issue, it has faulted the Pakistani government for its failure to protect its minorities and lamented that they are living “in fear and terror” in Pakistan. 

Worse compounded, however, is the plight of Pakistan’s 3 million Hindus, almost all of them living in the province of Sindh bordering on India’s Rajasthan.

For a number of years, these loyal Hindu subjects of Pakistan have been at the receiving-end of a special kind of fanaticism from the country’s Muslim zealots embarked on an orgy of proselytizing.

Young Hindu girls, approaching marriageable age, have been specially targeted by these frenzied zealots to quench their proselytizing thirst. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 20 to 25 Hindu girls-from villages and small towns of Sindh-are abducted each month by rampaging ‘missionaries’ and forcibly converted to Islam. Most of these girls are, then, betrothed to Muslim men, much against their will.

This practice-of which little trickles down into Pakistan’s mainstream media-is spawning a steady exodus of Hindu families-those with young girls approaching the ‘dangerous’ age-to neighbouring India in order to escape the long arm of the ‘missionaries’ and their conniving accomplices in the law enforcement machinery of the state. Several thousand Pakistani Hindus are believed to be living in India for years on visitor visas and biding their time to become eligible for Indian citizenship.

According to a report in the Deccan Chronicle of August 31, at least 919 Pakistani Hindus waiting in the queue in Rajasthan have become eligible to apply for Indian citizenship. However, according to Hindu Singh Soda, head of an advocacy group of Pakistani Hindus living in Rajasthan, the actual figures have been fudged by Indian authorities. He remonstrated in a recent interview to BBC that the list of his people kept by the Indian authorities was “too short.”One wonders if India is trying to be diplomatic or is naïve on the issue.

It’s an aggravating situation that the Pakistani missionaries’ unbounded zeal is conjuring up for both India and Pakistan at a time when the two countries seem seriously engaged in putting a sordid past of trust-deficit behind them and giving positive indications to turn a new leaf in their bilateral relations. Political leaders of India and Pakistan seem to be rising to the need and have accelerated the process of face-to-face dialogue. Zardari visited Manmohan in Delhi, earlier in April this year and the two have met again in Tehran last week. Indian Foreign Minister, Krishnan, is due to visit Islamabad in mid-September. The bilateral scene is looking good and promising. However, the obscurantists and fanatics of Pakistan are marching in the opposite direction and pulling all stops to revisit the sorry saga of the Partition.

Sadly, none of this seems to make any impression on Pakistan’s evasive Interior Minister, Rehman Malik. Talking to the media on the issue he sounded regrettably in sync with the ‘missionaries’ when he brusquely dismissed the forced flight of Sindh’s harassed Hindus as a “conspiracy to defame Pakistan.”

Malik, a highly controversial and tainted minion of Zardari, is either horribly misinformed or is simply passing the buck for his appalling failure to some unseen forces. This is typical of Pakistan’s errant leaders: when cornered, they always see a ‘foreign hand’ working against them. In Rehman Malik’s case, he sees an Indian ‘hand’ working behind every tragedy in Pakistan. His myopia is writing a new script of cynicism.

But I.A. Rehman, Secretary-General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, suffers from no delusion or lack of touch with reality in succinctly summing up the plight of Pakistan’s persecuted minorities without mincing his words. Lambasting the insouciance of the officialdom and the puzzling silence of the majority populace over this ongoing outrage against minority rights, Rehman had the last word on the subject when he said: “There is no outrage because Pakistan has passed into the hands of intolerable bigots.”

It’s obviously a very depressing time for all those Pakistanis , as well as well-wishers of Pakistan, who still value Jinnah’s dying vision of a secular Pakistan where the minorities would share space with its majority on a footing of equality. It’s about time Pakistan’s silent majority broke its stultifying reign of silence, spoke up and rose to the rescue of the country’s besieged minorities; it will be a service to humanity and Pakistan’s bruised image in the world. Or else, Jinnah’s secular Pakistan may soon mutate into a killing field of minorities at the hands of fanatics out to prove Jinnah horribly wrong. 

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 September 2012 on page no. 18

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