By: Naima Saqib
“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.\” This was the promise of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah to his fellow countrymen, Muslims and Non-Muslims, that religion will not become a tool of discrimination in the newborn country.
The vision he had shared with his countrymen promised equality for all. And had he lived longer, the Quaid may have been able to fulfill this vision. But unfortunately, his early demise in the formative years not only struck a debilitating blow to the country as a whole, it also meant the promise made to the minorities will never be fulfilled. Instead, the famous speech of his to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, remains to this day a forlorn reminder of what this country should have become – a peaceful, tolerant and progressive Pakistan. That speech is no longer a consolation to the religious minorities no matter how many times it is repeated, written or reminded about; for in this country, not only the government but society, people and the prevalent laws all discriminate against minorities, both religious and sectarian.
In Pakistan, minorities are persecuted by the law and the society on various levels. The Blasphemy law of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is one of the strictest such laws in the world. The law, which was meant to guarantee and ensure respect of religious sentiments of everyone were tuned into a tool of victimization, handing an excuse to the fundamentalists to settle scores and target the non-Muslim community. Anyone charged under the law – where people have been seen to have blamed non-Muslims to have blasphemed over petty issues like property disputes – faces certain death. When an accused is exonerated by the court, he is hunted by extremists. In many cases, judges are threatened to pronounce the accused guilty, which means a death sentence. And even though, no one has been hanged over Blasphemy Laws due to international pressure, many languish in jails over trumped up charges.
One example is that of Dr. M Younus Shaikh, who was accused of blasphemy in 2000 but acquitted by court, yet had to flee the country due to life threats. In 2012, Rimsha Masih, a 14-year old girl with Down Syndrome was accused of blasphemy and was put tried in court. She was acquitted after new evidence came into light that she had been falsely accused. Yet her family had to move abroad in order to protect themselves. There are many other similar examples where angry mobs have burnt to death a person with unsound mind accused of blasphemy.
The blasphemy law is just one of the many tools by which minorities are victimized. Their biggest enemy though remains the terrorist organizations who have targeted non-Muslims with religious zeal over the years – Christians, Sikhs, Shias in general and Hazaras in particular. But the last few years have been particularly deadly. Churches have been bombed, pilgrims, school going children, women and elders – no one has been spared. On 22nd September 2013, over 78 people were killed in suicide attacks on a Church in Peshawar. No one was arrested or prosecuted. In January 2013, in the city of Quetta, a bomb blast near a Shia mosque ended up killing over 100 people of the Hazara community. On 18th September 2012, Shia pilgrims coming from Iran were targeted in a bomb blast in Mastung near Quetta. In Mansehra, on 22nd August 2012, 22 Shia passengers were pulled down and brutally killed. In 2010, two Ahmaddiyya Mosques in Lahore were attacked by terrorists laden with automatic weapons, hand grenades and suicide jackets. 94 people were killed. In February 2012, 18 people of the Shia community were massacred after being pulled out of two buses on their way to Gilgit. The gory episode, in which three children were also brutally murdered, was also filmed by the terrorists What is of particular worry is not that so many have perished, but that the killers roam free, openly threatening others and promising new waves of merciless killings with impunity confident of never being caught.
The hatred towards minorities is not limited to the terrorists alone, as intolerance has permeated to the very core of this society and has poisoned the minds of ordinary folks. On 15th August 2012, a 12-year old Christian girl was gang raped and strangled to death. On 11th August 2012, 14-year old Hindu girl was kidnapped and forcefully converted. A Hindu teacher was kidnapped on 2nd December 2012. When recovered on 5th January 2013, said she had been pressurized to convert and drugged most of the time. In December 2013, a Christian woman from Okara was raped at gunpoint, in front of her husband. At the same time, a Hindu temple was demolished by the locals in Karachi. Every few days, a new story comes out where people from minority community have been being targeted, women forcefully converted, children kidnapped or people killed for their beliefs.
This has led to a lot of religious minorities fleeing the country. The Sri Lankan Catholic Church recently confirmed that over 600 Pakistani Christians were seeking asylum by January 2014. According to a survey, over \”90% Pakistani Christians prefer a refugee status from the UN after the increased violence\”. About 1000 Hindus have migrated to Indore in India from Pakistan in 2012. In Karachi today there are only 1700 Parsis, once the backbone of city\’s thriving economy, whereas just a couple of decades ago there were 7000. There once lived a small but thriving Jewish community in Pakistan, especially Karachi. Now none openly exists – the few accounts of existing Jews say that \”they pass themselves off as Christians or Parsis and dress in the traditional Shalwar Kameez\”. Before 1970, there was a famous Synagogue in Karachi, but it was demolished by the government of General Zia ul Haq.
As the majority of Pakistan turns against their own, they not only destroy lives but also the heritage of the country that was once multicultural owing to these communities. As old temples, synagogues, churches, shrines and mosques are destroyed, people having lived together in harmony for generations have turned against the unprotected minority. Intolerance has become the trait of the nation; having exceeded all limits, weakening the country in unseen ways. And as the darkness of extremism refuses to go away, hope of a new dawn of peace is slowly fading away. Unless we realize that being a Pakistani has nothing to do with religion, that the life of a non-Muslim is as precious as the life of a non-Muslim, and that to protect the country we must protect the minorities by acceptance and open minds, that new laws need to be introduced and implemented, the salvation of this country will remain a forlorn hope.