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Minorities in a Naya Pakistan

Ayesha Siddiqa
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Naya Pakistan is the new buzzword in the country. It is the campaign slogan of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, and it speaks to those who are seeking not only a new leadership but also new Pakistan. There is an expectation that with this election must come a Pakistani renewal that would be more in keeping with the original promise of Partition, instead of the present corruption, poor governance and the absence of any sense of security. Many see the country suffering from the burden of an inept leadership and an expensive partnership with the United States in its war on terror, and believe Pakistan has paid too high a price for this. In the past few years, the media seems to have put the burden of both internal mismanagement and skewed external relations on the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. With new leaders like Imran Khan on the horizon, it is believed that a positive change is in the offing. Although it is not clear that Mr. Khan will be the ultimate winner in the elections, it is taken for granted that the new 40 million votes added to the voters’ list, including those of the youth, will favour the cricketer-turned-politician.

Turnout uncertain

However, there is a lot of uncertainty underlying the change mantra. Given the fact that the voter turnout in past elections was low, it is still not certain how many will show up for the election today. In provinces like Balochistan, the voter turnout in the 2008 election was as low as 20 per cent. Countrywide voter demotivation could get compounded by the threats being issued by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has warned people, especially in the tribal areas and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, against going anywhere near a voting booth. Thus far, there have been numerous murderous attacks by the TTP against the previous ruling combine of the Pakistan People’s Party, the Awami National Party, and the Muttahida Quami Movement, targeting its leaders, candidates and campaign rallies. The TTP has declared these parties liberal-secular and thus deserving of its ire. The irony of course is that none of the three parties challenged terrorism and radicalism in the country despite being in power for five years.

Even if voters overcome these challenges to come out and vote, there is no evidence yet that a Pakistan under a different leadership can bring about the sort of renewal that is required for the task of nation-building. Nowhere is this more evident than in the attitude of political parties to the religious minorities. There are 2.9 million non-Muslims in the country formally registered with the National Database and Registration Authority. Of this, the biggest number is of Hindus (approx 1.4 million), followed by Christians (1.2 million), and then others which include Ahmedis, Zorastrian, Bahai, Sikh, Buddhist and even a handful of Jews.

Pakistan, which opted for separate electorates for its minority communities at the time of Partition, took the decision to integrate these communities in the political mainstream by abolishing that system in 2002. But in other ways, the process of integration of the minorities has been non-existent and, thanks to the overall ideological-political climate in the country, the attitude towards them is one of violent intolerance.

After many such incidents of violence targeting them and their mosques, the Ahmedis, for instance, are feeling more ostracised and threatened than before by the growing latent-radicalism in the country. The community was declared non-Muslim by the Bhutto government in 1974. Mainly concentrated in Central Punjab, the Ahmedis have opted to boycott these elections as none of the political parties seems to heed their concerns.

Earlier in the campaign, Imran Khan, who spoke about changing Pakistan from his hospital bed after his fall this week, issued a formal press statement contradicting the video footage about the party’s plan to revisit the law declaring Ahmedis non-Muslims. The video clip had gone viral on social media and the ensuing controversy forced Imran Khan to make the statement that he believed in the finality of Prophet Muhammad. But shockingly, he went on to add that no one from his party had sought Ahmedi votes. More than anything else, that declaration raises worrying questions about a national party’s agenda. Notwithstanding differences on interpretation of faith, the right of Ahmedis to life and inclusion in politics has to be ensured. It is also interesting that Imran Khan used the term ‘Qadiyani,’ which the Ahmedis in Pakistan consider derogatory.

The situation in relation to other political parties is not encouraging either. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, which is trying to maintain control of the largest province of the country, is entrenched in an electoral partnership with the defunct militant Deobandi organisation, Sipha-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), that is contesting elections under the title of Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ). The party’s rabidly fundamentalist posturing in Punjab does not bode well for the Ahmedis, or for the Shia community. In these last few months, the Shia community has been violently targeted in different parts of the country, especially in Balochistan, by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an offspring of the SSP. The Shias are not a minority, but their relentless targeting is a result of the mainstreaming of Deobandi and Wahabi discourse in society and politics in general.

Misuse of blasphemy law

The Christian community is not happy either. In the past five years, there was a noticeable increase in the number of attacks on Christians using the blasphemy law. The Zia-era legislation condemns anyone guilty of blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam to death. The law is frequently manipulated to settle personal scores and disputes over land, especially by land mafias that are spread across the country. Some ministers of the PML-N were allegedly behind some of the attacks.

A similar situation seems to prevail in Sindh where Hindus feel increasingly insecure and abandoned like everyone else by what was once Bhutto’s party. Many PPP candidates are wealthy land-owning wadheras; some of them have well-known links with criminal gangs and militant outfits. The Hindus of Sindh will probably vote pragmatically for the PPP in areas dominated by the party, not out of loyalty, but to safeguard their interests and buy security, seriously deficient in Sindh.

Unlike the Hindus in South Punjab who mainly consist of the scheduled castes, the Sindhi Hindus include castes that are more affluent. They dominate business and industry in rural Sindh but consider themselves a threatened species primarily due to the abysmal economic and security conditions in the province. In upper Sindh, they say that the banyas dare not even show off their wealth for fear of attracting unwelcome attention, usually in the form of kidnappings for ransom. The overall increase in poverty and poor governance in the province have raised ordinary people’s threshold as far as crimes against rich Hindus are concerned. No one is outraged if some of their wealth gets stolen or extorted.

A bigger concern for Sindhi Hindus in recent years pertains to forced conversion of upper caste Hindu girls to Islam. Their economic influence has not translated into sufficient political clout to generate support among the political elite of Sindh to solve this particular grievance.

Wadhera-mullah combine

The lack of political engagement does not help counter the influence of religious wadheras or the wadhera-mullah combine which is now increasingly behind the conversion issue. It was in 2012, for example, that the conversion scandal involving a pir of the Bharchundi shrine became public. Mian Mithu, as he was popularly known, was also a PPP member of the National Assembly. He was instrumental in converting a local Hindu girl, Rinkle Kumari, to Islam after one of his men facilitated her abduction and then married her off to a boy she allegedly had an affair with. As Rinkle’s Talraja caste has some influence in Ghotki and adjoining Dharki, where it even has a huge shrine of Sacho Satram Das, the PPP eventually abandoned Mian Mithu.

Pakistan’s renowned Sindhi playwright, Noor-ul-Huda Shah, believes that there is a tendency to treat conversions, especially of upper caste girls such as Rinkle Kumari, as a trophy. The pride in converting upper caste Hindu girls could also be linked with the gradual spread of militant organisations like the SSP, JeM and LeT in interior Sindh. Piggybacking on the shoulders of the religious party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, the various militant outfits are said to be engaged in several cases of violence including the killing of three Hindu boys in Khairpur who were suspected of involvement with Muslim girls.

The efforts made by some Hindus in the last couple of years to migrate to India caught media attention. Though most people in the community still consider Pakistan their country and would not leave, political parties have paid scant attention to their problems.

For the minorities in Pakistan, the biggest question is whether this election will help them negotiate their safety and security in a society and polity increasingly drifting towards the right wing. So far, no political party has had the courage to provide a reassuring answer.

(Ayesha Siddiqa is a commentator based in Islamabad and author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy )

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