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August 11, 2016

Lost space


August 11, 2016

For some, Pakistan has been a land of the pure, and of privilege. For the rest of us, it has been a troubled land, mainly for its minorities and marginalised segments.

As its new citizens, we all were assured equal status three days before Independence Day, by none other than Quaid-e-Azam himself, in his historic speech at the Constituent Assembly on August 11 that said that we were all ‘free to go to temples, mosques or any other places of worship in the state of Pakistan.’ And that we may ‘belong to any religion or caste or creed but that had nothing to do with the business of the state’.

Unfortunately, the Quaid left us the following year. His vision for a newly created state, ensuring equality to all, remained a mere vision. During the last seven decades we have not been able to mainstream our minorities and take them out of the trap of marginalisation. In a trail of tragic events, most of them are currently either silently fleeing from the country or silently suffering with no other option in sight.

Instead of moving towards harmonised equality, the space for our minorities is shrinking with every passing year. Religious extremism is deepening and saner voices are being silenced. It has become worse in recent years, as the radicalisation in our society takes on an ideological frontline. The legacy of undoing inequality, which gave birth to this country as Muslims were the minority in united India at that time, is being left behind and forgotten.

To regain that lost space and revive the forgotten promise made by the founder of the country, the last PPP government declared August 11 as the National Minorities Day. While this is a very positive step – to stand with minorities at least one day in a year – but August 11 should be observed with quality celebration and befitting solidarity including reaffirmation of some viable solutions of pressing problems being faced by the country’s minority communities.

Since its declaration, the day is being celebrated more at the official and less at the public level. Some rights and minority-oriented NGOs arrange events at major cities with a cursory coverage given by the media. There is no large celebration with all our minority communities at a national scale. More importantly, there is no large-scale effort to mainstream them and take them out of the debilitating situation they are stuck in.

Therefore, the day and its importance needs to be popularised. We normally show solidarity with the country’s minorities as and when any unfortunate, tragic incident happens. It has become a trend to show routine verbal solidarity and revert to the silent mode automatically. As a result, intolerance and extremism is deepening and saner voices are now fewer in number.

We need to address the issues and concerns of our minorities by taking onboard leading parliamentarians and opinion-makers, including activists, and relevant stakeholders – preferably those who are striving for interfaith equality and harmony in the country.

With them, the mainstreaming of minorities would emerge as the top challenge. It is a complicated issue, cobwebbed with other issues and controversies.

We should start with the simple ones. The issue of five percent quota in jobs and ten percent representation levels is less controversial. Us complying fully with that can restore their confidence. That can build some goodwill which can lead to the resolution of other, more controversial issues.

The country’s minorities are better represented at the national and provincial assemblies, including the recently added representation in the Senate of Pakistan. However, in the last local bodies elections in all provinces, minorities found themselves under-represented. By improving, balancing and filling the quota related gaps, their gradual mainstreaming is possible.

After that the controversial issues can be touched with a clear-headed strategic plan. The issues of forced conversions in Sindh and blasphemy in both Sindh and Punjab are terrifyingly troubling. The pending legislation on both issues can make minorities feel more secure, since both state and non-state actors have been taking advantage of these loopholes by politicising them.

Lastly, our respective mindsets and national narrative to deal with the religious minorities is another wider and larger stumbling block. We continue to call them minorities, and refuse to accept them as equal citizens. As far as mindsets and the national narrative are concerned, there is a need to change the curriculum that preaches hatred and advocates inequalities on the basis of caste, creed or colour. Once that is done, hardly anyone would call them ‘minorities’.

On this national day, let us try and regain that shrunken space with this three-pronged strategy – by starting with less controversial issues and, as some improvements take place, moving to more crucial ones and lastly try and change the very mindset and narrative that keeps our minorities unequal, even after seven decades.

The writer is an Islamabad-based anthropologist, currently working with the Shaheed Bhutto Foundation.

Email: [email protected]


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