Imran Khan and Minorities in Pakistan and India

Imran Khan, the Prime Minster of Pakistan, seems to be unaware of the trajectory of state of minorities in Pakistan. While addressing a ceremony, Khan stated that his government would ensure that minorities in Pakistan get equal status and rights. Good intentions! At the same time he tried to criticize the state of Indian minorities. For Khan to talk of the state of minorities in India is like the pot calling the kettle black! While there is truth that in India the minorities are being relegated to ‘second class citizenship’, the state of minorities in Pakistan has been much worse by any standards.


Khan forgot that leave alone Hindus and Christians, who are ill treated there, even a sect of Islam, the Ahmadiyyas, are not recognized as Muslims and despite his wishes he could not retain Atif Mian, an outstanding economist, as a member of his Economic Advisory Council. He faced tremendous pressure of fundamentalists, the Maulanas, to expel him. These Maulanas exert a good deal of pressure on the politics in Pakistan. The Ahmadis have been persecuted a lot during last few decades. During my recent travel to Bangkok for an interfaith meeting, I happened to meet a number of Ahmadis, who had escaped from Pakistan and are seeking shelter and trying for citizenship in Thailand. India too has a significant Ahmadiyya population; while Indian law regards them as Muslims, they face some discrimination from fellow Muslims of other sects.


One recalls the fate of Aasiya Noorin, popularly referred to as Asia Bibi, who was convicted for blasphemy in 2010. Two Pakistan leaders who stood up in support of her, Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, were assassinated. Their assassin was given a hero’s status. When the Supreme Court of Pakistan finally acquitted her on 31 October 2018, citing “material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses” that “cast a shadow of doubt on the prosecution’s version of facts”, there was a big agitation against the judgment. Islamic parties led these protests, which took place in several major cities of the country. Imran Khan tried to negotiate with fundamentalists, but could not prevail upon them to withdraw their protests. They filed a review petition in the Supreme Court, which was rejected by the Court on January 29, 2019. Despite this, Asia Bibi continues to face death threats, and is presently in hiding in Pakistan under government security; newsreports say that Canada has offered her asylum, but it is not sure when she will be allowed to leave the country. 


The plight of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan has been abysmal all through. Forcible conversion and abduction of Hindu girls, and restrictions on religious practices of Hindus and Christians have been common there. The regular repetitive violence against these minorities is horrific. Pakistan did begin with the 11th August Constituent Assembly speech of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He urged forgiveness of bygone quarrels among Pakistanis, so all can be “first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights . . .” Pointing out that England in the past centuries had settled its fierce sectarian persecutions, he proposed that “in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.” Brilliant formulation!


This principle was not to last long. Even during Jinnah’s own life time, the communal elements around him started asserting, and after his death the ground was all theirs. Democracy there was jeopardized time and again. Passing through many dictatorial regimes, with spells of democracy in between, finally Pakistan declared itself Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1973, and later when Zia Ul Haq took over the reins of Pakistan, the process of Islamization of Pakistan further accelerated. Shariat Courts were established, prominence was given to Islamic clergy and with this the plight of minorities went further downhill. What Pakistan shows is that the process of ‘other-ing’ is unending. This process began with exclusion of Hindus and Christians, went on towards ‘other-ing’ of Ahmadiyyas, and now even a major sect of Islam, the Shias, is being ‘other-ed’


Till recently, the situation of minorities in India was not comparable to that in Pakistan. With an impeccably secular Constitution, and under the leadership of Gandhi–Nehru, India stood on the solid foundations of pluralism. Pakistan, interestingly even could not stay together as a single nation. It broke up with Bangladesh separating from it due to many reasons, one of them being imposition of Urdu as the national language. This is a lesson for all, if at all one is needed, that religion cannot be the foundation of a democratic state.


However, in India too, over the last three decades, communal violence has gradually been on the rise and the minorities are facing marginalisation. Post-partiion, for the first few decades, the country remained relatively free from incidents of communal violence. But since the 1980s, the incidents of communal riots have risen steadily. Communal violence against Muslims peaked in the 1990s, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It first resulted in the carnage in Mumbai, then was followed by the genocide in Gujarat in 2002, and later there took place the horrifying violence in Muzzafarnagar. Anti-Christian violence began in the decade of 1990s, leading first to the horrific murder of Pastor Graham Staines in 1999 and later the carnage in Kandhamal in 2008.


In the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition, the Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz wrote a moving poem, Tum Bilkul Hum Jaise Nikle (You Turned Out to Be Just Like Us). Imran Khan’s ambition of giving better status to the already denigrated minorities is laudable. But can he succeed with the Mullahs and the military breathing down his neck? India had a better record of dealing with minorities, but now, here too, their conditions have taken a turn for the worse. Let’s hope the right thinking people of both communities will come together to reverse this situation in the near future.


(Ram Puniyani is a former professor of biomedical engineering and former senior medical officer affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.)

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