For centuries, the arrival of spring has been celebrated across the world. In the Subcontinent, it starts with the ages-old celebration of colours called Holi.
While the event is celebrated by the followers of Hinduism, the festival has also remains popular among people who belong to other faiths and continues to attract more people into its rainbow-like fold. This year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also took part in Holi celebrations in Karachi – a rare gesture of peace towards Hindus and other minority groups in Pakistan. Various minority groups are considered to be unequal in the country and steps need to be taken to improve their status within society.
During the Holi celebrations, PM Sharif announced Rs500 million for a host of projects that would benefit the Hindu community across Sindh. The move was warmly welcomed by those who attended the event or watched coverage on the Holi celebrations on their TV screens. After his speech, the prime minister had a casual conversation with the audience. PM Sharif told participants that he once sang like Mohammed Rafi and quipped that Kheal Das Kohistani, the general secretary of the PML-N’s Sindh chapter should lose weight.
Both remarks attracted laughter and a round of applause from the audience. They showed another side of the PM’s personality. PM Sharif is largely seen as a serious statesman who makes speeches – laced with the promises of developments – that mirror the traditional style of politics in our country.
There are more than 10 million Hindus across Sindh, of which 2.7 million are registered voters as per the existing data. In two districts of the province – Umerkot and Tharparkar – they outnumber the Muslim population and constitute a majority that is valued by the PPP leadership and civil society representatives in Sindh. The community is also considered to be a vital and decisive force during the elections in Sindh – mainly in Ghotki, Kashmore, Jacobabad, Jamshoro and Badin districts.
The Hindus celebrate a large number of festivals. Two major annual festivals include Holi and Diwali. Most people confuse both events and even tend to misspell their names. There is also a third festival which is comparatively less popular. It is known as Thadhri. Holi takes place with the arrival of spring and Diwali starts with autumn. Both festivals are celebrated to herald the arrival of summer – in the case of Holi – and winter – in the case of Diwali. They are seasonal celebrations that are firmly ingrained within our culture and religion.
Nearly 70 years ago, when India was split into two parts, both India and Pakistan saw rivers of blood and revenge flowing across borders. This led to a mass exodus. A large number of educated and wealthy Hindus left Sindh for India. However, a majority of Hindus decided to remain in their ancestral land as the situation in Sindh was comparatively less turbulent and did not pose a threat for them. However, in recent years, the situation has intensified as a large number of Hindu girls are forcibly abducted, converted into Islam and married by young Muslims. This is predominantly done through the patronage of conservative preachers who promote such forced conversions in Sindh.
As a result, hundreds of families have either silently shifted to India or moved their businesses to the Middle East. Hindus in Sindh witnessed difficult and dangerous times between 2008 and 2013 and thousands of families opted to leave Pakistan and settled permanently in India.
Despite symbolic efforts by the PPP’s young chairman to improve the plight of Hindus, the Sindh Assembly passed a landmark bill on the issue of the forced conversions a few months ago. Unfortunately, the then governor of Sindh returned the bill to the assembly and urged them to reconsider it after it drew severe criticism from radical segments of the religious right. The bill barred the forced conversion of any non-Muslim below the age of 18. This provision was believed to stifle the spirit of embracing Islam at any point in life on the basis of free will.
In sharp contrast, the Hindu Marriage Bill passed by the same Sindh Assembly is billed as a major achievement that is likely to ensure the registration of marriage and make it easier to issue marriage certificates to Hindu couple. This simple, apolitical and uncontroversial aspect of the law took several decades to finalise. It is anyone’s guess how much time it will take to reach a consensus on other issues that plague the community.
The Hindus in Sindh face a diverse menu of concerns that remain unattended even though the media has played a pivotal role in highlighting their woes. The five percent job quota and other allocations for the community have yet to be implemented and adequate security arrangements have not been taken to safeguard their places of worship.
If we want to bring Hindus and people from other faiths within the mainstream, we should stop calling them minorities and view them as equal citizens. These rights were advocated by the founder of country and we should make every attempt to bring them into effect. Our shared culture has been and can continue to be a strong connecting force in this regard.
As colours have no caste or creed and can be celebrated by anyone at any point in time, we should participate in such celebrations – even if it is on a symbolic level.
The writer is an Islamabad-based
anthropologist and analyst.