Islam – Pakistan’s problem

Pakistan has been put on the back foot by the sudden surge in the number of families crossing the Wagha border post into India.  For its part, India finds itself on the horns of a new dilemma vis-à-vis its neighbour, as the demand to accept the ‘returnees’ fast becomes a chorus with prime time TV bringing into every drawing room tales of forced  conversions, kidnappings and murders from families who were Indians  65 years ago.

Yet Pakistan remains in denial about the atrocities committed against Hindus, even while Hindu families strongly resist going ‘back home’ to a life they consider worse than death. Indians, particularly Hindus, returning to the land of their ancestors is not a new phenomenon. It has happened many times in the past from Burma, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Fiji and the erstwhile Eastern wing of Pakistan. These returnees were accepted by their mother country with open arms, given shelter and provided with the means of livelihood.

When Idi Amin appeared on the Ugandan scene in the seventies, the Indians who had made his country their home long before he was even born were kicked out. Burmese Indians met with a similar fate when the military seized power in Yangon. In respect of Sri Lanka, a different set of circumstances in the mid sixties saw the reverse migration of Tamils who had gone to the island to work on tea plantations during the colonial era. The prime ministers of the two countries met and  resolved the impasse over this migration, with New Delhi agreeing to accept a certain number of migrants and Colombo offering to give Sri Lankan citizenship to the remaining ‘Indian plantation workers’.

Periodical communal flare-ups in East Pakistan, as it was known in the days before it emerged as the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971, saw hundreds of Hindus cross into adjoining Assam, Tripura and West Bengal. Large numbers of Muslims also migrated from East Pakistan into Assam at regular intervals, primarily in search of a living. And such migration continues to this day to the delight of political parties keen on nurturing their vote banks.

However, the case of Hindus streaming into India from Pakistan’s Sindh and Balochistan provinces is different. They have been living decent lives and have financial security in Pakistan, which emerged as a separate country for Muslims in the sub-continent under the two-nation theory propounded by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Today they have become a ‘nowhere people’, who, according to the Express Tribune, are ‘running away from Pakistan’.

This is provocative news not only for right-wing Indians but also for students of history. But if they think the two-nation theory has merely lost its sheen for the second time in six decades, they are mistaken. When the Muslims of East Pakistan separated from the rest of the country to form Bangladesh, the two-nation theory met its Waterloo; religion didn’t prove to be a cementing bond for Muslims speaking Urdu and Bengali. Today it is not Muslims who are leaving Pakistan, but Hindus.

So at play is not the two-nation theory but rather Islam as it is practised in Pakistan. While Hindus and Muslims are able to live together in India, where Jinnah was born, and also in Bangladesh, they are not able to do so in Pakistan, the country he created.

Let there be no doubt that no religion in the world has the level of tolerance that Islam teaches. However, going by reports from migrating Hindus and the concerns expressed by sections of  Pakistani society regarding Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws, it is clear that Islam as it is practised in Pakistan does not represent tolerance.

Islam rejects the forcible conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, but this is what is being practised in Sindh province, home to the majority of Pakistan’s Hindus. On 19 April 2012, the Express Tribune’s editorial lamented that many young Hindu girls were being kidnapped, forcibly converted and then married off to Muslim men. This liberal English daily, published in collaboration with the International Herald Tribune, saw no light at the end of the tunnel, since ‘no law exists to protect Hindu women in the first place’. The paper nevertheless went on to add: ‘Shamefully, Hindu marriages are not registered in the country and a bill to recognise their marriages has been stalled in parliament for unexplained reasons. This, in fact, makes it easier for such Hindu women to be abducted and forced to remarry after conversion. As the situation stands right now, in cases of suspected forced marriage the matter usually comes down to the word of one party against the other and as we well know, the implied threat of force – almost always from the majority towards the minority – also comes into play. In one conversion case the Supreme Court intervened but ended up siding against the Hindu community.

There are voices calling for the protection of the Hindu community in Pakistan.  The Secretary General of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Iqbal Zafar Jhagra, has said the ‘unabated’ kidnappings for ransom and conversions of Hindus are a ‘glaring proof of the government’s failure in Sindh’.  He has called on the government to track down the perpetrators of the crimes and to ensure protection for the Hindu community in the country.

In Balochistan, which has been in a state of turmoil for years, Hindus are leaving their ancestral homes; some are moving to India while some are finding shelter in big cities like Karachi and Quetta because of the threats they face. The prosperous Hindu trader community is systemically targeted for kidnapping. The police have shown very little interest in recovering the victims and so families have either had to pay exorbitant amounts in ransom or lose their loved ones.

This state of affairs being common knowledge, Interior Minister Rehman Malik faced flak when, instead of trying to assure protection and safety for the Hindu minority, he accused India of a ‘conspiracy to defame Pakistan’. It didn’t seem to strike him that the figure of 250 visas issued by the Indian Diplomatic Mission in Islamabad is a ridiculously low number, and one that is hardly useful evidence to defame Pakistan; the demand for visas has always far outstripped the Indian Mission’s ability to issue them.

A leader in a leading daily chided Malik thus: ‘The Interior Minister should know that the Indian government and Pakistan’s Hindu community are not involved in any conspiracy. The only conspiracy here is the one hatched by a state that refuses to protect vulnerable communities. With his insensitive and thoughtless remarks, Rehman Malik may just have made things even worse for Hindus here. The suspicion with which Hindus were viewed will only increase now that their loyalty to the country has been questioned, when in fact we should be focusing our efforts to maintain a more amicable relationship.’

The situation is compounded by the fact that the text books as a rule portray religious minorities as second-class citizens. In fact, right from Class One, the text books say that minorities should be ‘grateful for the limited rights and privileges granted by generous Pakistani Muslims’. Hindus constitute more than one per cent of Pakistan’s 180 million people, while Christians account for around two per cent. The country is also home to Sikhs and Buddhists. Shias and Ahmediays constitute other minorities who are discriminated against. The text books describe the Hindus ‘as extremists and eternal enemies of Islam, whose culture and society is based on injustice and cruelty’, while Christianity is described as ‘a creed that has rejected the pure message of Islam’. The message of peace and brotherhood is portrayed as alien to the Hindus.

If Pakistan doesn’t want to see any further migration of Hindus or other minorities, it must go back to basics and relive the values of its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and make Pakistan a hospitable place for all communities and all religions. At the same time it must undo the damage caused by its first prime minister, Liaqat Ali Khan, who through the Objective Resolution in the Constituent Assembly introduced Islam as the raison d’être of the newly formed country. Because, as noted scholar Tahir Mehdi says: ‘Those loving their culture, defending their language and demanding their democratic and political rights, on these bases became heretics conspiring against the last citadel of Islam in the subcontinent. Ideological boundaries of the country became more important than the limits of electoral constituencies and principles of democracy were contrasted to injunctions of Islam as defined by the select Ulema.’

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. The Zias, the Bhuttos and a friendly power all conspired to allow the growth of extremism in Pakistan, which has heightened the threat to the lives of Hindus, Christians and marginalized Islamic sects. The ruling elite and their props must learn to acknowledge all these groups of people as citizens of their own country and accord them a place of honour under the same Pakistani sun. Unless they do so, the Rehman Maliks of Pakistan will continue to suffer from ‘foot in mouth syndrome’, to the delight of political rivals and cartoonists alike.

Paul Hamilton