Nirupama Subramanian

The Musharraf regime is making visible efforts to project Pakistan as an Islamic republic that is accommodative of ethnic and religious minorities. But how serious is it?

FOR THE minorities of Pakistan, who form about three per cent of its 160 million population, these are good times and bad times. For the first time, the Pakistan government is making the effort to restore a Hindu temple complex dating back to the 6th century in the Punjab province, spending big money in the process. Pilgrims from India were visiting the temple from 1983 barring a longish break in the last decade following the destruction of the Babri Masjid but this time the government involved itself in the celebrations of Shivaratri at the temple.

The Musharraf regime is also making other visible efforts to project Pakistan as an Islamic republic that is accommodative of ethnic and religious minorities, and interested in preserving its plural heritage. For instance, there were few more unique sights in Islamabad last Diwali than that of the top brass of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid) wearing big bright tilaks on their forehead and saropa-like silk scarves over their salwar-kameez, celebrating the festival at the party office. The celebrations included a small Ramayana procession, with children dressed up as Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana. PML(Q) secretary general and the chairman of the Pakistan Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee Mushahid Hussain Sayed spoke about "the need to make minorities realise" they are "equal Pakistanis and part of us." Then there was the visit by President Pervez Musharraf to a Hindu temple in the Clifton area of Karachi, remarkable because it was the first time ever that a ruler of Pakistan has done that.

More instances come to mind, such as the commissioning of the first Sikh in the Pakistan army, and Lahore getting its first Sikh traffic constable. In the North-West Frontier Province, the Chief Minister laid the foundation stone for a church in the Peshawar University campus in December 2006 and promised a handsome sum for its construction. Surprising, when you consider that the ruling party in the province is the Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of Islamic parties. A judge in the Peshawar High Court threw out a petition from two Muslims for staying the construction, on the ground that Islam and Pakistan's constitution guarantee religious freedom and respect for minorities. Pakistan's Christian community welcomed the ruling as "a positive example of promoting interfaith harmony in the country."

All this is of a piece with "roshan khayali" and "darmayani ravi," the two phrases that translated from the Urdu together constitute "enlightened moderation," the project that President Musharraf is advocating as the way forward for Pakistan. Early last week, the National Assembly or the lower House of the Pakistan parliament permitted ruling party parliamentarian M.P. Bhandara to introduce a Constitution (Amendment) Bill that proposes the insertion of an important speech by the founding father of the country, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, in the 1973 Constitution.

The speech is none other than Jinnah's August 11, 1947, address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, shortly after his election as the first President of Pakistan, three days before it was born. It is quoted frequently by Pakistanis who oppose attempts by the religious Right to turn the country into a theocratic Islamic state:

"You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. We are starting in the days when there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State...Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find 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."

A majority of the ruling party parliamentarians voted in favour of allowing Mr. Bhandara to introduce the Bill, and it has been sent up to a parliamentary select committee where it will be debated further.

How far it will go is anybody's guess, but Mr. Bhandara's ambition is to have the speech inserted in the Constitution to "correct the imbalance" created by the 1985 inclusion of the Objectives Resolution as Article 2(A). The 1949 Resolution rests sovereignty in Allah and sets out that Pakistan will observe democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance, and social justice as enunciated by Islam. It says Muslims shall be "enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings and requirements of the Quran and Sunnah," and "adequate provision shall be made for minorities freely to profess and practise their religions and develop their cultures."

As the preamble to the 1973 Constitution, it had no force in law, but was elevated to a substantive part of the Constitution as part of General Zia-ul-Haq's Islamisation drive. A disparity between the original Resolution, and the text annexed to the Constitution, which drops the word "freely" in the sentence on minorities practising their faith, drew comment in Pakistan. Article 20 of the Constitution guarantees the right of religious freedom, subject to "law, public order and morality."

According to Mr. Bhandara, who was adviser on minority affairs to President Zia and is now a ruling party parliamentarian, the situation of minorities has improved a great deal under the Musharraf regime. The nation is moving closer to Jinnah's vision of Pakistan, he says.

To President Musharraf's credit, one big step he took was to abolish the system of separate electorates, which too came into existence in the Zia era, under which religious minorities could vote only for candidates of their own religion.

Still, the environment for Pakistan's minorities particularly Hindus who number about 20 lakh, Christians who number about 16 lakh, and Ahmadiyyas, the sect barred from calling itself Muslim remains confusing, full of insecurities and, more than anything else, threatening.

In its recently released annual report for 2006, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country's pre-eminent non-government rights organisation, has detailed a number of instances of discrimination and violence against non-Muslim communities.

It says the State "promoted violence by failing to act against those attacking non-Muslims or their properties" and their places of worship.

For instance, in October 2006, the HRCP conducted a fact-finding mission into complaints from Hindus that butchers had turned a compound with a temple and several Hindu homes in Karachi into a slaughterhouse. The team found that with the help of the police, land grabbers had forcibly evicted many residents from the premises. The temple had been taken over by a Muslim "holy man." The report also lists several cases of forced conversions to Islam, especially of Hindu women.

"The failure to take punitive measures only [added] to the sense of insecurity faced by minorities," the report said. In addition, despite a constitutional guarantee of equality of status and opportunity, there was discrimination against them in jobs and educational institutions.

Blasphemy laws

But what causes the most insecurity among minority communities are the country's blasphemy laws under which a person can be jailed on the accusation that he or she denigrated Islam or desecrated the Koran. The offence is punishable with execution or a life sentence, and at the minimum, a three-year jail term. Very often, the laws are used to settle personal scores and fix opponents in disputes over money and property.

As recently as last month, Martha Bibi, a Christian woman, was arrested on blasphemy charges. The All Pakistan Minorities Alliance said the woman had been in an altercation with Muslim men who owed her money, and that they had falsely accused her of denigrating the Prophet. Increasingly, Muslims have also been targeted.

At a conference in Paris last month, Senator Mushahid Hussain was asked when his government would reform the blasphemy law. His words ostensibly gave hope, but actually showed that as long as it was politically inconvenient, the government would do nothing. "Inshallah, after the election," he replied. "We don't want to hand another election issue to our `friends'," he said, referring to the religious opposition parties.

A few years ago, General Musharraf swiftly dropped plans for a minor change in the blasphemy law as Islamic religious parties came out on the streets in opposition, and similarly backed out of another plan to drop the religion column in passports. Now Senator Hussain has openly predicated another such promise on convenient political timing. The problem is no one can guarantee that such a time will ever come.