By Bhopinder Singh
Mar 30, 2016
At the same time as a bomb blast tore through the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore, killing over 70 people, a rally of over 10,000 supporters of the executed Islamist killer Mumtaz Qadri (assassin of former Pakistan Punjab governor Salman Taseer) were staging a sit-in outside Pakistan’s Parliament in Islamabad. The common thread between the two parallel events was bloody angst and restiveness against the minority Christians.
As per the Pakistani Taliban group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the bomb targeted the minority Christians, while the rally in the capital was to force the government to implement the puritanical Sharia laws and designate Mumtaz Qadri as a martyr — he who had assassinated a man for standing up for a Christian woman accused under the dubious blasphemy laws of Pakistan. Clearly, times in Pakistan are not kind to the envisaged vision of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s clarion call: “In any case Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state — to be ruled by priests with a divine mission. We have many non-Muslims — Hindus, Christians and Parsis — but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizens and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan.”
The estimates of the numbers for minorities varies from 3.5 per cent to 10 per cent, including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Bahais and other “apostates” like the Ahmadiyyas. Often the Shia Muslims (15 per cent of the population) face a similar ire in the form of sectarian violence, though officially they are not bracketed within “minority” like the others.
As early as 2013, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom had picked the trend and noted that “Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated as ‘countries of particular concern’ by the US government” — a pertinent augury of the society in a flux. The principal architects of the hard-line Islamist strain are the Machiavellian politician Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who courted Islamists tactically to secure himself politically, and then his nemesis, Zia-ul-Haq, who firmly entrenched the theocratic colour in vital institutions like never before. Even the covert complicity of the Western powers in overlooking the Islamisation as long as their bidding was done in the larger geopolitical game ascribes to them a guilty and enabling role in driving Pakistan down the road of religious extremism and minority intolerance.
Soon the wave of aggressive pan-Islamism was to consume the tinderbox in Pakistan with sectarian, regional and societal fault lines and unrest that invariably sought refuge, justification and succour in religion. The Frankenstein’s monster unleashed by a combination of zealous politicians, dynamic geopolitical realities and inept handling of the signs of fissures would lead the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to prophetically remark that “snakes in the backyard won’t bite only neighbours”. Bite they did, and ruthlessly, when the implosive tendencies of the restive masses turned on each other, with the minorities becoming the obvious and most easy prey.
The Lal Masjid siege was arguably the inflexion point for the Pakistani establishment to take on its own creations of destruction. Unfortunately, the powers that be were still selective and coined creative expressions like “non-state actors” to justify non-action against elements whom they thought were not inimical to their own interests. However, religious extremists recognise no border, creator or limit, and soon safe areas like Punjab got their own version of Punjabi Taliban. The institution of the Army was specifically targeted via the horrific massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar, and just a few days back their arrival was made chillingly clear by Ehsanullah Ehsan, the spokesperson for the terror group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar: “This is a message to the Pakistani Prime Minister that we have arrived in Punjab.”
Ironically, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is also a protégé of Zia-ul-Haq, who had handpicked the Sharif brothers in the mid-’80s. However, like much of the Pakistani establishment, the tide has turned and Mr Sharif, along with the Pakistan Army, is at the forefront of taking on the virulent elements, albeit tentatively. Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistani defence forces’ offensive against various militant groups, and the recent approval in the Sindh Assembly of the Hindu Marriage Bill are symptomatic of the establishment’s realisation of the overall direction it ought to take — from the regressive puritanical spirit that is eating into the vitals of Pakistan towards more progressive steps to address the wrongs in the system. These specific societal wrongs targeting the minorities had earlier ensured the denial of recognition to Pakistan’s first Nobel Prize winner, theoretical physicist Abdus Salam, and the Pakistani war hero Maj. Gen. Iftikhar Khan Janjua, just because they were “apostate” Ahmadiyyas.
Basically, the thought divide in Pakistan is stark: The educated classes, middle-upper sections of society and the security fraternity reflect one side of Pakistani thought, while the uneducated and the economic underbelly of society have fallen prey to the madrasa-inspired visions of hard-line Islamist solutions for all ills. The hapless minorities are stuck between these two competing instincts which define Pakistan today and are, therefore, the dartboard on which these two schools of thought settle mutual scores and assert themselves.
Unarmed, exposed and still in large numbers, the minorities need an unequivocal and unqualified support system that will test the Pakistani establishment, which is historically adept at “qualifying” various actions to visibly demonstrate the kind of complete commitment that it has never shown before. India, too, stands to benefit from calling the “bluff of selectiveness” as the implications will translate into meaningful positivity on the Indian side of the border.
Bhopinder Singh is a former lieutenant-governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry