Haroon Khalid's 'A White Trail' throws light on the life of religious minorities in Pakistan

As an Indian Muslim I have drunk from the fount of pluralism of the country. While the words of Kabir or Lal Ded have often provided me solace, it is the basic principles enshrined in the Indian constitution that have been the bedrock of my belief. The Babri Masjid tragedy, Gujarat-2002 and, lately, Muzaffarnagar have challenged that trust, but failed to erode my confidence in the syncretic ways of our nation. Of course, every time an Advani, a Modi or an Akhilesh struck a blow to my value system, civil society has helped me keep faith.

It is under this light of personal experience that I look at the minorities’ experience across the border in Pakistan. Though founded on the premise of religion, Pakistan, in the initial years, was not quite governed by narrow sectarianism and bigotry. The radicals were outnumbered by the moderate voices. A country with preponderance of Sunnis, it has had Shias in top position in Government. Of late though, the country is going through a period of social turmoil and churning. As it begins to take on increasingly radical hues, it is the minorities of the country, like those anywhere else, who are the most in danger. Thankfully, civil society activists raise their voice in Pakistan too.

I picked up Haroon Khalid’s book A White Trail (Westland) not so much out of curiosity as concern. It is claimed to be “a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities”. It is.

It is a journey that builds momentum gradually. Khalid changes gears smoothly, though his first few steps are tentative; he limits himself to scenes of festivities (Holi, Balmiki Jayanti…) in Lahore. This is also the stage when he smartly introduces his readers to the basic tenets of his subjects’ religion — he talks of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians and Bahais in Pakistan. For an Indian, expressions such as “Ganesh was the son of the Hindu God, Shiva” might appear redundant but for a Pakistani not familiar with the famous story of how Shiva placed the head of an elephant on his son’s head, it introduces the subject in a cordial manner which helps place the larger story of the minorities in perspective. He does the same relating the story of Guru Arjun who, after severe torture, disappeared into the river, giving rise to the legend that he was lifted alive by God. His place of martyrdom is at Gurdwara Dera Sahib in Lahore; among its visitors are Nanak Panthi Sikhs or Hindus from Sindh who keep a portrait of Guru Nanak in their temples.

Then, Khalid exposes lacunae in the handling of the places of worship of the minorities. For instance, talking of Katas Raj, he points out that the place has had spiritual value for centuries and Guru Nanak was said to have come here as it was “a popular destination for ascetics at that time”.

Katas Raj was a popular pilgrimage spot for Hindus too, in undivided India. When they left for India after Partition, the temple fell into disuse. A handful of local Hindus visited it believing its pond was created from a tear of Shiv; a dip into the pond cleansed one of sins. However, it took the much-talked-about visit by L.K. Advani for the local authorities to renovate the shrine. Interestingly, in the course of the story, Khalid reveals that like Muslims have a Wakf Board in India, Hindus in Pakistan have their Awqaf or Wakf too! And while Diwali is hardly prominent in Lahore, in Peshawar it is celebrated with gusto.

Interestingly, Khalid reveals that in Pakistan, many Hindus either have dual names or have adopted Muslim initials. For instance, activist Haroon Sarab Diyal, president of the All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement. It reminds me of Danish Kaneria, Pakistan’s most successful non-Muslim bowler. Closer home, I met some construction workers in Noida recently. There were Muslims from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — not from Gujarat — who were called Bheema Sheikh, Rahul Khan and so on. On both sides, the story remains the same; you sandpaper away the name of one religion, add another, the tone that comes out is the same.

Khalid’s book has more pertinent things to reveal. Such as Dalit Balmikis who are registered as Christians, the fast-eroding syncretic nature of society and the deaths, first of Shahbaz Bhatti, a federal minister for minorities, then of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab. All along, my heart misses many a beat. Thank God, I am an Indian!

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