Apprehensions of minorities

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By Tilak Devasher

Developments over the past few weeks have once again revealed the ideological insecurities that Pakistan suffers from. The process was kick-started with Imran Khan stating in the National Assembly that Osama bin Laden was a martyr. Later, a ruling party legislator accused Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) leader Khawaja Asif of blasphemy for asserting that all religions were equal.

Then, the minority Hindu, Sikh and Ahmadi communities have been targeted. In July, the construction of the first Hindu temple in Islamabad, in fact possibly the first temple in Pakistan itself since 1947, had to be halted when several clerics and even politicians objected to its construction with Muslim taxes in an ‘Islamic Republic’. Subsequently, zealots demolished the unfinished wall of the temple.

An elderly Ahmadi man, Tahir Ahmdd Naseem, was shot during the hearing of a blasphemy case against him at the Peshawar Judicial Complex in July. The killer became an instant celebrity, with lawyers and the police lining up to take selfies with him. What was surprising was that the shooter managed to take a gun into the court complex situated in a high security zone, despite all visitors being thoroughly checked before entry.

PESHAWAR: Activists of Frontier Printers and Publishers Association demonstrating in favour of Faisal Khalid who is accused of killing a person Tahir Ahmad Naseem at Peshawar Judicial Complex in July. The demonstrators called Faisal Khalid as a hero and ‘ghazi’ for this act of ‘bravery’ which can send him to glove if proved. They also condemned the United States for taking favour of murdered Tahir Ahmad and demanded immediate release of Faisal Khalid.

Next, a religious group forcibly occupied the land of Gurdwara Shahidi Asthan Bhai Taru Singh, Lahore. The gurdwara is the site of martyrdom of Bhai Taru Singh in 1745. The perpetrators claimed the place for Masjid Shahid Ganj and tried to convert it into a mosque.

Apart from these specific cases, two government enactments underline the deep-rooted malaise in Pakistan.

The Punjab Assembly on July 22 passed a Bill titled Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam (protecting the foundation of Islam) 2020. It made the use of the words ‘Khatam-un-Nabiyyeen’ (the last Prophet) mandatory whenever the name of the Prophet was mentioned. It gave the Directorate General Public Relations (DGPR) powers to censor and monitor any literature that the state considered anti-Islamic and against the country’s national interest. He would have powers to visit and inspect any printing press, publication house, bookshop and confiscate any book, before or after printing.

Interestingly, the Bill was introduced not by a religious party but by the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q), a coalition partner of the government in Islamabad and Lahore. The leader of the PML-Q, Pervez Elahi, had, in fact, spoken out against building a Hindu temple in Islamabad. The Bill was another attempt to burnish his Islamic credentials and thus strengthen his aspirations of becoming the Prime Minister.

The sectarian connotations of the Bill makes it controversial since it names the family and companions of the Prophet after whose names honorific expressions must be added. The Shia ulema have, however, taken exception to the use of prescribed nomenclature for those who they did not consider worthy. The head of the key Shia organisation, Tehreek Nifaz Fiqh Jafaria, Agha Syed Hamid Ali Shah Moosavi has termed the Bill contrary to the Quran and Sunnah and an attack on the constitution. He warned, ‘We will not shy away from taking any big step to save the foundations of the religion and the motherland.’

The Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) on July 23 banned 100 textbooks currently being taught in private schools in Punjab since they were deemed to be against the two-nation theory, or ‘unethical and illegal’. Such content included speeches of Gandhiji, presenting different views of historians and a maths book that had pictures of pigs. According to The Nation, ‘These grounds come dangerously close to erasing history and dictating content; Gandhi and related figures are part of a shared history that we as Pakistanis should learn from, not erase.’ Thus, instead of promoting cultural diversity, the effort was clearly to limit critical thinking so that the status quo would not be challenged. The PCTB has now started a review of 10,000 books being taught at private schools to determine if they were acceptable. Incidentally, the head of the textbooks board was found to be an avid watcher of pornography!

All these developments are testimony to the seeds of intolerance that were sown long ago. It is customary to blame Zia for the growth of Islamisation in Pakistan and its resultant consequences of increasing radicalisation and sectarianism. However, the seeds date back to the Pakistan movement. It was in the run-up to the 1945-46 elections that the religious genie was unleashed with the consent of Jinnah. Since Jinnah was allergic to mass mobilisation or land reforms and the Muslim League was weak in the areas claimed for Pakistan in the West, the only way to attract people was the use of religion. With slogans like ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya?’ and the answer being the kalma – La illah ilallah’, there was no way the religious genie could be put back in the bottle after Pakistan was created.

Considering that over 95 per cent of Pakistan’s population is Muslim, constant effort at further Islamisation reflects a deep-rooted insecurity. There seems to be a subterranean fear that without repeated doses of manufactured Islamic fervour, Pakistan will not be able to keep its various nationalities together, who, though Muslim, have separate ethnic identity, language, culture and history. Pakistan’s biggest ideological conundrum since creation has been its inability to weld these disparate nationalities together. Hence, the need to convince themselves and the populace almost daily that they are indeed an Islamic nation and Islam provides the glue to keep them together. In the process, however, the social fabric is being rent asunder and the space for Pakistan ever becoming a moderate Islamic nation is narrowing.

(The author is political analyst, consultant, VIF and member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), New Delhi. The contents of the article are his personal views and not necessary be agreed by the newspaper. Editor)