Monday, May 16, 2016

Pakistan’s Non-Muslims and Muslims: Equal Citizens, Eh

By Yaqoob Khan Bangash
May 14th, 2016
A few months ago, a Hindu member of the National Assembly of Pakistan had had it. In a spontaneous outburst, he charged that members of parliament routinely ridicule the Hindu religion and always treat Hindus and Indians synonymously. “Why can’t we be called Pakistanis?” he wondered in the end.
This barely one-minute reaction in parliament hit the nail on the head. However, his fellow parliamentarians and the general public heard him and then ignored him. After all, this is what has been happening in Pakistan since its inception, so why change now?
When Pakistan was created, about 25 per cent of western Pakistan and 30 per cent of eastern Pakistan was composed of non-Muslims, not an inconsequential percentage. This percentage quickly decreased to about five per cent in western Pakistan and about 18 per cent in eastern Pakistan by the middle of the 1950s. The exodus of non-Muslims, however, was not simply a result of Partition. While the bulk of non-Muslims left between 1947-48, a steady trickle continued till the 1965 war, ringing alarm bells throughout. But then we didn’t care. Why? Because even though they were legally Pakistani citizens, most of us thought of them as ‘Indian’ in any case since they were Hindus. Even now there is no reaction when Pakistani Hindus seek refuge in India because we feel that somehow it is ‘right’ and somehow ‘it was going to happen regardless’.
 The fact is that from day one, Hindu citizens of Pakistan were made to clearly feel that their real country was India and that it might be better for them to leave their ancestral land and migrate to a foreign land simply because their co-religionists live there. Bhim Sen Sachar, a member of the Constituent Assembly and a fervent Lahori who did not want to leave his beloved city, saw the writing on the wall and left Pakistan in 1949, becoming the chief minister of Indian Punjab twice. Jogendra Nath Mandal, so lauded for being the only non-Muslim in Pakistan’s cabinet and law minister also smelled the coffee and departed. The Pakistani Hindu population kept being cornered, kept being ridiculed and marginalised, kept crying out for simply respect as citizens, but no one cared, and no one does.
At the time of Partition, there was another minority left in Pakistan too: the Christians. In Punjab, their members of the assembly voted for Pakistan and at the time of the mass exodus, a number of Christian families even moved to Pakistan, expecting this country to be a better prospect for them. However, their fate has not been very different from the Hindu citizens of Pakistan.
 In fact, in some ways, their predicament is even worse. For some bizarre reason, most Muslims think that Christians in Pakistan are some sort of Western agents. True, they were mostly converted by Western missionaries, but that made them as much Western as the Pakistani Muslims who these days parade around as Arabs become Arabs, much to the amusement and disdain of ethnic Arabs. Hence, where Pakistani Hindus are supposedly ‘Indians’ (and India does accept Pakistani refugees), there is no place for Pakistani Christians to go to. No Western country regards them as their own, and most even do not want to give them a visa in fear that they might claim asylum there! So, for Pakistani Christians it’s the devil and the deep blue sea — they are not accepted in Pakistan, and nor can they move anywhere else either.
Every now and then, politicians pay a lot of lip service to equal rights and equal citizenship. Yet most of them, immediately afterwards, pass a belittling or ridiculing comment about Hindu customs or Christian beliefs. Such actions are so endemic that most actually do it without thinking, it’s only second nature. Therefore, it remains a lot of talk and no real action.
Non-Muslims are but a tiny minority in Pakistan, so small that they can’t even threaten Muslims in Pakistan, even if they want to. Yet most Pakistanis are not even bothered to treat them equally, let alone better. Pakistanis are often quick to come out on the streets to protest atrocities against Muslims elsewhere, be it the atrocities being committed in Palestine, Burma or Kosovo (and I am not criticising that!), yet they are quiet when their own co-citizens are abducted, forcibly converted, falsely charged with blasphemy, raped and abused, simply because of their religion. Pakistan will only become a nation when Pakistanis start protesting against the discrimination suffered by non-Muslim citizens and start treating them as equals.
Yaqoob Khan Bangash teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.
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