We are living in a world that is hard on minorities, almost everywhere. Minorities increasingly find their social and economic well-being, life and liberty threatened. Majority communities, on their part, fail to realise that an even bigger danger looms over their heads: their humanity is at risk.
Two days ago, on August 11, Pakistan celebrated Minorities Day on a positive note. The very celebration of this day hints at a positive change in Pakistan. This day was initiated by the PPP government in 2009; it was continued by the PML-N government and this celebration enjoys full support from all major political parties.
This date has a particular significance because of a speech made by the founder of the nation in 1947 before the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. In his address, Quaid-e-Azam had famously stated: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
Jinnah, a constitutionalist to the core, was well aware of the threat that minorities may face from an intolerant majority. It was because of the fear of such majoritarianism that Pakistan was imagined and created. In a few crisp lines, the father of the nation had defined the state as a civic space where all citizens were equal. He had extended a promise to members of minority communities that they would enjoy equal treatment and their religious freedoms would be guaranteed. His speech had outlined a vision for Pakistan that remains a beacon of hopes for religious minorities in the country.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French thinker, had warned in 1840 that public opinion would become an all-powerful force, and that the majority could tyrannise unpopular minorities and marginal individuals. Empirical evidence suggests that the average level of religious discrimination in the world has risen in the last two decades. The recent trends of limiting religious freedom appear even in established democracies, with the ‘burqa ban’ in several European countries being one of the more notorious examples.
South Asia appears to be leading the trend. After continued atrocities by Gau Rakshaks, and state brutalities against Kashmiri Muslims, last week Indian authorities declared some four million residents, mostly Muslims of Bangladeshi origin, to be foreigners – effectively stripping them of their citizenship.
Pakistan too has been an inhospitable place for its religious minorities all along. Members of minority communities have witnessed acts of organised violence from extremist groups and terrorist organisations. They have found themselves alienated in a national discourse that remains focused on religion. Some researchers have even found material containing hatred against minorities incorporated in our textbooks.
However, in the last few decades, Pakistan has witnessed developments that defy the international trends. A number of laws have been enacted that aim at protecting minorities and promoting their social and economic well-being. All major political leaders have participated in religious festivals of minorities.
A trend of incorporation of religious minorities into the shared civil space is visible at various levels. Pakistani media has celebrated achievements of outstanding individuals of minority groups and highlighted their religious practices. Pakistan’s national anthem at movie theatres now shows places of worship belonging to various religious groups.
According to reports, in the recent elections, three Hindu candidates of the PPP were elected from Muslim-majority areas in Pakistan’s Sindh province. The media also celebrated the election of a member of the Kalash tribe to a provincial assembly for the first time.
On a more substantial level, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had announced a five percent job quota for minorities in 2008. Both the federal government and the provincial government later took steps to ensure that minorities get this share. However, the implementation process has highlighted the fact that we do not have sufficient university graduates belonging to minority communities. The struggle has now shifted to ensure a five percent quota for young men and women from minority communities at institutions of higher education.
These steps are in line with articles 36 and 37 of the constitution of Pakistan, which promise to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of religious minorities and promotion of social justice.
Invoking the same clauses, former chief justice of Pakistan Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani took suo-motu notice of the state of religious minorities in the country in 2014 after a deadly attack on a church in Peshawar. The Justice Jillani issued a historic eight-point directive to improve the situation of religious minorities in Pakistan. The directives include: job quota, educational quota, protective police force to guard places of worship, a national commission for minority rights, etc.
At the time, the PML-N led government had vowed to ensure the implementation of the directive. More recently, the court demanded the government to inform it on the status of implementation of said directives. The former chief justice had also directed the formation of national and provincial commissions for minorities’ rights. Minority rights activists are still struggling for the implementation of this important directive.
Pakistan’s political parties have made lavish promises to minority communities, though the implementation of these promise leaves a lot to be desired. In 2013, the PML-N, poised to win the elections, presented a manifesto which promised the introduction of a job quota for religious minorities in “educational institutions and public-sector jobs including diplomatic missions”. The PML-N government left without fully materialising these commitments.
The PPP’s 2013 manifesto promised the formation of an equality commission that would ‘monitor the implementation of job quotas for minorities’. Unfortunately, no such commission was created during the party’s five years in government in Sindh.
In 2013, the PTI had made a commitment that religious minorities would be given “due representation in all state institutions”. Yet, this promise too remained unfulfilled. In 2018, political parties have again made serious commitments to religious minorities. This time the PTI is poised to rule in the centre and in two provinces while the PPP will continue to rule Sindh. We can only hope that these political parties will be able to better ensure that their pledges materialise into something concrete, particularly those related to minorities.
Members from minority communities also need to occupy the political sphere. They must shun any ghettoisation and become part of the mainstream – by joining political parties of their choice and being vocal not only on their own rights but on all national issues.
Young men and women of religious minorities I happen to meet – and I do very often – appear more confident than ever about being proud Pakistanis. While they have a lot to complain about, many of them also tell stories of preferential treatment and love extended to them by members of majority groups. They must realise – and we must make them realise and feel – that they belong to Pakistan and Pakistan belongs to them.
The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.