Religious minorities complain that they have been undercounted in the census
The squealing and rumbling of eight washing machines continued while children in the courtyard outside made loud noises in a language that seemed to be a mix of Thai, Urdu and Punjabi. The scene was typical of a morning in the Delite condominium in the Prachutit area of Bangkok.
It was March 16, 2014. For Davis Khokhar, washing his large family’s clothes at the public laundry room was a daily routine since his wife became very ill. He would then go to the nearby market to get some groceries. The afternoon was spent playing cards and gossiping with other Pakistan refugees in the neighbourhood. They all kept an eye out for the immigration police.
“Nothing much has changed since you visited us in 2014. We are still not allowed to work. We depend on help from our relatives and from some NGOs. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed life here in Thailand by only a little bit. There is a lockdown from 8pm to 4am. The churches are still closed, and no congregations are allowed,” says Davis, talking to this scribe from Bangkok this week.
Khokhar had arrived in Bangkok, along with his parents, wife, three children, a sister, and her two children in 2014. From there they had hoped to travel to a third country under the UNHCR protection. The family is one of hundreds who have fled Pakistan citing threat to their lives on account of religious intolerance and bigotry in the society.
There is no consolidated data on the Christians who have migrated to other countries or are seeking asylum. The number may be huge. Overt religious intolerance is hardly the only reason. They have been left behind in the development process. The community has also been underreported every time a census has been taken - in 1951, 1961, 1972, 1981, 1998 and 2017. It is partly on account of this underreporting that they have not been allocated the resources needed for development.
According to the 1951 census report, minorities formed 23.2 per cent of the population. They formed six per cent of the population in West Pakistan, which did not include the Ahmedis. The decline in the minorities’ share of the population is not new. Community leaders have rejected the results of all six censuses.
The statistics are disturbing. As per census reports, there were 1.3 million Christians in 1981, 2 million in 1998 and 2.6 million in 2017. The population of Pakistani Christians has since dropped from 1.59 per cent of the total population in 1998 to 1.27 per cent in 2017. If there has been an exodus of Christians from Pakistan, it has not been entirely visible.
Khokhar and many others like him have fled due to discrimination, rising extremism and insecurity. “I, like others, had to face a lot of hardship seeking the refugee status in Thailand. My sister died here. Her body was sent to Pakistan for burial because they cremate the bodies here. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, our departure has been delayed. We hope to go to Canada by the end of this year,” says Khokhar.
According to the 2017 census results, Christians are no longer the second-largest religious minority in Pakistan. They are the third, behind Ahmedis whe have now replaced them in the second position.
Prof Abdia Elvin of Forman Christian University, laments the underreporting of Christian community in the census. “Census is a powerful tool. It is used for planning and development. The census results determine the future course of any community or country,” says the professor.
“Reservations of minority communities about census reports are widely known. The minorities have never accepted the census results that have deprived them of their rights and privileges. The policies and distribution of resources have not been fair. The census has led to identity crises and political mishandling of minorities’ affairs,” Elvin says.
Peter Jacob, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) executive director, believes that the census results are correct overall. “There is a chance of loss of data in remote areas but not in the cities. Census has been a long time concern for the minorities. We at Justice and Peace, along with some other organisations, also took a self-census in three districts, including Gujranwala and Toba Tek Singh, in 1998. The results were almost the same as those of the official census. I have seen the process of data collection from very close quarters,” he says.
Jacob says his organization ha kept a close watch on the census process “there was talk of holding the census in 2008. Paper for holding the census was bought and stored mostly in private warehouses and was ultimately used in 2017.” tells Jacob.
He adds, “the delay in the census was caused due to issues between the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Finance. The advertising of the census started very late. Due to that the stakeholders questioned the credibility of the census. People were not prepared for the census,” according to Jacob.
The CSJ executive director holds that the possibility of undercounting of Christians cannot be ruled out. “Migration could also be a major factor that may have led to the decrease in population of Christians. Forced conversion too is a factor that cannot be ignored,”
“Pakistan leads the case of minorities in the world. We proudly express solidarity with Kashmiris and other people fighting for their rights. We should also help and promote the marginalised communities in Pakistan.”
According to the 2017 census, Christians are no longer the second-largest religious minority in Pakistan; their numbers have dropped. They are the third-largest minority, with Ahmedis having replaced them in the second position.
Statistics are never just figures. They show the strength of real people. No country in the world can progress unless it takes all people forward in the process of and development. Promoting diversity and inclusivity should be the prime focus of a country hoping to grow. There is a need to develop a consensus among the people of Pakistan for an accurate census that will be acceptable to all stakeholders.
If migration and forced conversions are leading to a decrease in Christian population, the state needs to address these issues and take concrete measures to build the minorities’ confidence. If there is underreporting, it has to be corrected.
The writer is a senior journalist and general secretary of YMCA, Lahore. He can be reached on Twitter @EmanuelSarfraz