Pakistan’s religious extremism is taking a toll on its minorities


While Pakistan continues to bemoan the alleged suppression of human rights of minorities in other countries, it is actually the minorities on its own soil who continue to suffer the worst fate of their lives. Not just the Muslim minorities like Hazaras and Ahmedis but also the Hindus, Sikhs and Christians who in recent decades have increasingly faced systemic discrimination at the hands of the administration and the society, particularly as the project of Islamisation gathered roots in the country.
Statistics themselves tell the story. In 1947, when Pakistan was created by dividing India, minorities comprised 23% of Pakistan’s population. But at present, after decades of mistreatment and discrimination, it is mere 3-4%. It is pertinent to point out that as a land created specifically for the Muslims, discrimination against the religious minorities is directly embodied in Pakistani Constitution. Article 2 of the constitution states, “Islam shall be the State Religion of Pakistan and the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice as enunciated by Islam shall be fully observed”. Article 41(2) states that only Muslims are allowed to become the President.
This discrimination is then extended by other laws. For instance, in September 1974, a joint resolution by the Pakistani Parliament officially rendered the Ahmadiyya community a non-Muslim minority. In other examples: section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, the main criminal code, criminalises any act spoken or written which defiles the name of Prophet Mohammad. Moreover, in 1979, the series of Hudood Ordinances, ensured the application of Sharia laws in cases of extramarital sex, theft and prohibition.
Amongst these, the anti-blasphemy provision has been much abused to target the minorities, who are then obviously left at the mercy of the majority. Members of the majority community have patently misused this to settle personal civil and criminal disputes, and much against the principles of natural justice, the victims are then left with the responsibility to prove their innocence, rather than those who have accused them of blasphemy. The warped justice system for minorities was clearly evident in the case of Asiya Biwi. This is itself the gravest violation of human rights.
This official discrimination against the minorities is further amplified by the societal discrimination, again with the help of the state. Pakistan’s school text books are famous not only for their historical inaccuracies, particularly when it comes to history of India, but also religious beliefs which seek to assert supremacy of Sunni over other faiths. The school curriculum also makes it mandatory for the students to compulsory read Quran, the ideology of Pakistan, along with the “path of Jehad and Shahadat”.
It is such highly indoctrinated minds which then go on to fill the ranks of the army, civilian administration and in unique case of Pakistan, the sectarian and terrorist groups. It is obvious that minorities are unable to get high-end jobs, which then in turn has implications on their standard of living and status in the society. According to official government statistics, only 2.6% of federal jobs were held by non-Muslims and approximately 70% were in the two lowest grades. Many often end up doing low-paid menial jobs. This is reflected in the extremely low status for these communities in Pakistani social strata.
As expected, there is an ugly side to this poverty and low status: girls from Hindu and Christian communities often find themselves at the receiving end of trafficking, sex trade and forced conversions. Multiple reports over the last few years have documented how girls from poor families have been kidnapped and trafficked by powerful organised criminal syndicates and middlemen, with promises of money and better life. According to verified reports of International NGOs, around 1000 girls from religious minority communities are converted to Islam every year.
This systemic discrimination against the religious minorities is worsened by their repeated targeting from the Sunni sectarian groups, some of them created with the explicit support of the state. For instance, the most dreaded group (now banned) Sipah-e-Sahaba was created by the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq to target Shias. The Ahamdis too have faced the violent backlash of these groups. Such has been the impact of this violence that many Shias and Ahmadis neither openly profess their identity nor congregate visibly, so as to avoid hostile attention from the Sunni extremists. Yet what these groups get in return is not just the state apathy but also an open support to the extremist groups from the Pakistan Army. The case of the Barelvi group, Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and the encouragement that it received from the civilian administration and the army clearly demonstrates this.
Even the religious symbols are not spared: while many Shia and Ahmadi shrines and worshippers’ gatherings have witnessed terrorist violence, vandalism of Hindu temples and Sikh Gurudwaras, along with their desecration and illegal encroachments are regular occurrences in Pakistan, with no remedial action from the local administration. As per the All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement’s survey, out of 428 Hindu temples in Pakistan, only 20 survive today.
Furthermore, Sikh families in Pakistan have been migrating to either India or to different parts of Pakistan due to lack of worship places or no separate school for their children. They are forcibly taught Islamism in school.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan issued a verdict recently on minority rights while proposing special force for the protection of the people of various faith and their places of worship. But to utter surprise, Government did not pay any heed to SC directive but continued violating human rights.
In a recent statement (Oct. 06, 2019), the Council of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) raised serious concerns over enforced disappearances and protecting the rights of religious minorities. HRCP’s fact-finding mission showed concern over the resurgence of religious extremism in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region.
The use of religion and exploitation of religious sentiments mastered skilfully by the Pakistan’s rulers, particularly by the General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, ostensibly for nation-building has brought Pakistan at this stage. If one goes by the trend of shrinking minority populations since 1947, then it is not difficult to predict what may happen to them in near future. Manzoor Ahmed