DAWN - Opinion; June 18, 2006

Published Jun 18, 2006 12:00am

State of minorities

By Anwar Syed


BENAZIR BHUTTO says (Dawn, June 10) Hindus in Larkana are being harassed because they support the PPP. It is not unlikely that some Muslims in Sindh and elsewhere also suffer harassment for the same reason. The agony of Hindus goes deeper.

Hindus make up about two per cent of the country’s population. Hardly any of them are to be found in Punjab, and no more than a few thousand reside in the NWFP. Most of the Hindus who lived in the Pakhtun areas in Balochistan left soon after 1947, but interestingly enough those in the Baloch districts remained, partly because of the assurances of safety and well-being they had received from the Khan of Kalat.

A little more than 27,000 Hindus are currently said to be living in Balochistan, and it seems that they are doing reasonably well. Most of them have not opted for public education or employment. The lower-ranking among them work as musicians, carpenters, construction workers, and in occupations that the Baloch consider beneath their status. Others are businessmen, ranging between small shopkeepers and wealthy owners of jewellery shops and larger general stores. They control the wholesale trade in several towns. Reports of their maltreatment in the Baloch areas are rare.

During the last three years, while “people-to-people” diplomacy in the “peace process” between Pakistan and India has been going forward, goodwill and cordiality have been showered upon the visiting Indian Hindus, but the same do not appear to have been bestowed upon our own Hindus who, like many Muslims, have been living in the land for untold generations.

It is Sindh where most of the Pakistani Hindus are located, and it is here that the hardship they suffer has been the severest. As mass migrations of persons between India and Pakistan were taking place during the weeks before and after Partition, the Quaid-i-Azam appealed to the Sindhi Hindus to stay on, but the great majority of them left. A smaller proportion of those who remained consists of caste Hindus, who are businessmen of one kind or another, or work in education, public services, small industry, and the professions. They belong to middle and upper income groups and live mostly in urban centres. Karachi reportedly has a Hindu population of about 70,000.

Pakistani Hindus maintain a low profile, but they do have a few organisations such as the Pakistan Hindu Panchayat, Pakistan Hindu Welfare Association, and the Karachi Hindu Gymkhana that promote social development, and educate and organise their people on the issues confronting them and the larger society. A few Hindus have achieved positions of great eminence. Some of the better known jurists and lawyers are Hindu; one of them, being Bhagwan Das, who is the most senior judge in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, next only to the chief justice.

I have encountered three Hindu members of the National Assembly, and I imagine Hindus have a noteworthy presence in the Sindh provincial assembly. But this is not to say that the reasonably successful Hindus live trouble-free lives. We will come to that subject shortly.

The majority of the Hindus in Sindh are placed either in the lowest caste, “shudras,” or entirely outside the pale, that is, untouchables called “Dalit.” They work as landless peasants, bonded labourers, or servants doing menial jobs (sweepers, scavengers, etc.) that Muslims and caste Hindus regard as degrading. About a million of them live in what used to be the Mirpurkhas “division,” nearly 350,000 in the extremely arid district of Tharparkar, and the rest are scattered.

The Dalit suffer oppression and humiliation at the hands of both caste Hindus and Muslims. They are evicted from the land they occupy, relocated at distant places, and forced to work without due compensation. Bogus criminal cases are filed against the political activists among them. Their women are often molested, and the police ignore their complaints.

The attitude of the caste Hindus is easily understood. In their reckoning the Dalit deserve nothing better, considering that they stand outside the fold of proper Hinduism. But it is not clear whether the Muslims mistreat them because they regard them as Hindus or because of their wretchedly low economic and social status. Both considerations may be at work. In any case, note that the caste Hindus are also disadvantaged in several ways.

Seeing that Hindus are a tiny minority, some Muslims feel free to insult, humiliate, intimidate, and blackmail them. In the past few years a number of prosperous Hindus (doctors, lawyers, businessmen) have been kidnapped for ransom. Many of them have had to pay money to extortionists in return only for being left alone. The community at large is suspected of being disloyal to the country and individual Hindus may be accused of being Indian agents, sponsoring disaffection and sabotage.

Suspicions and accusations of this kind mount during periods of high tension between Pakistan and India. For instance, many Hindu temples in Pakistan were destroyed in retaliation against the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. If no other excuse is handy, individual Hindus can be accused of blasphemous speech or conduct.

Young Hindu women from both the upper caste and Dalit families have been abducted with increasing frequency in recent years. In some instances, when the girl did not come back home from college, her parents reported her disappearance to the police, who informed them after a lapse of time that she had eloped with a Muslim “friend,” converted to Islam, and married him.

Some of these girls filed declarations in court to the effect that they had embraced Islam and married the young man concerned of their own free will. The court allowed them to go their way and dismissed their grieving parents. There is nevertheless the lurking suspicion on the part of some investigators that these young women’s conversion and marriages may not always have been their own free choices. One hears also that some of these marriages do not go well. Cases have been found in which the man who had initially married a Hindu girl divorced her after a few weeks, and passed her along to another man in return for a consideration, who married and then divorced her.

One may possibly contend that the atrocities mentioned above have nothing to do with the targeted person’s religious identity, that some of our people, like their counterparts in other societies, are given to moral turpitude or meanness of spirit, and that they will do their mischief wherever they expect to get away with it, without regard to the victim’s antecedents or affiliations. One making this argument may point out that Muslim men are kidnapped for ransom, and Muslim young women are abducted and raped or forced into unwanted marriages, much more often than Hindu men and women are. Sectarian violence among Muslims themselves, including attacks on each other’s places of worship, has increased to alarming proportions during the last 25 years with the rise of fundamentalism and extremism.

This train of reasoning is not irrelevant but, in my view, it does not fully explain the plight of Hindus, Christians, and other minorities in Pakistan. They were intimidated, insulted, humiliated and exploited even before the rise of fundamentalism and extremism. Their temples have been desecrated, even destroyed, from time to time ever since independence. It will have to be conceded that the treatment meted out to them does have something to do with the fact of their being non-Muslim, and that the bad guys among us feel freer to target them than they do Muslims. The smallness of their proportion in the country’s population, and the resulting insufficiency of the impact they can make on its political and economic affairs, may also account for the low esteem in which the majority holds them.

Two other lines of reasoning come to mind. We do not tire of announcing to the outside world that Islam enjoins peace, moderation and tolerance. This is undoubtedly true. But if we are to be honest with God, the world, and ourselves, we ought to couple our assertion to this effect with the frank admission that many of us, professedly believers, have no intention of obeying the Islamic injunctions in this regard. If we do not wish to add this qualification, we should learn to honour and cherish our minorities.

Now and then a Hindu girl converts to Islam, mainly to be able to marry a Muslim young man. I am not sure this event deserves to be celebrated. She has abandoned the support system that her family and community had earlier provided, and it is by no means certain that she will be valued and well received by those whose faith she has now adopted. If, after the fervour of romance has subsided, her husband and his family mistreat her, she will have nowhere to turn. The larger Muslim community is not organised to protect and comfort her.

Many Muslims observe with pride and joy that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, and that many thousands of persons in North America, Europe, and other places have embraced it. Even before these people entered the fold, the number of Muslims in the world exceeded one billion. The vast majority of them were (and still are) poor, semi-literate, ignorant of science and technology, unprogressive, incompetent and therefore susceptible to non-Muslim powers’ domination. Most of them were also less than righteous in terms of Islamic norms and values. Why then should an addition of a few hundred thousand to their number be a matter of celebration? I would much rather spend my resources to improve the moral and material capabilities of those who are already Muslim than induct new recruits in the fold.

The writer is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, US.

Email: anwarsyed@cox.net

People’s distrust of leaders

By Kunwar Idris


The people distrust their leaders as much as they distrust taxi drivers. You cannot blame them for it. If the driver rigs the fare meter the leaders manipulate the import of cabs. Nawaz Sharif’s government imported yellow cabs free of duty in the thousands. Many of his cronies were seen using the cabs as personal cars.

Yet the country’s dwindling taxi fleet has been replenished, to the relief of the middle class urban commuters. Three hundred black London cabs, whose approval has come through, will now be imported duty free and go, perhaps, to the current cronies.

The affluent commuters will have to wait for three years when the black cabs are assembled in the country which has been made a condition for privileged import. Three years is a long time and investment in local manufacture is high enough for the single nominated importer to wriggle out of the commitment on one or the other pretext. An importer of CNG buses already has.

It appears incongruous that while our own Suzuki taxis and public buses are subject to duty and sales tax, the imported London cab will be exempt from both. The leaders have their own plans and priorities but one must remind them that 90 per cent of the buses plying on Karachi roads are more than 30 years old and would not be licensed to do this in any other country conscious of safety and pollution standards.

Incentives are needed for mass passenger transport and not for London-style cab rides. Our leaders are altogether indifferent to public transport. Shahbaz Sharif, when he was chief minister of Punjab, introduced a scheme which made a modest contribution to the improvement of urban bus services. That scheme too stands abandoned, or has fallen into disuse, for lack of official patronage.

The people’s distrust of their leaders extends beyond luxury cabs for the privileged few and archaic buses for the masses. It shows in everything, especially as elections loom. Will the elections be held in October 2007, earlier or not at all? There are as many answers to this question as are the number of leaders. The people are wary of them all.

The president and his ministers say emphatically and often that the assemblies will complete their five-year term which would be in October next year. Then Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain comes up, as if to dampen all hopes for an earlier election, with warnings that the elections could in fact be postponed. Under the Constitution, the elections can be postponed for up to a year only if there is a national emergency, and it lies in the power of the president to proclaim a national emergency. Quite obviously, Chaudhry Shujaat is speaking the mind of the president.

The people’s distrust persists and further deepens when they hear dissonant voices emerging from the opposition. Maulana Fazlur Rehman is perhaps the only leader openly committed to taking part in the elections whenever held, with or without Musharraf. He would not want to leave the turf open for others to occupy. Quite obviously, the maulana has liked the role of the leader of the opposition and also reaped the benefits of his party’s rule in the NWFP and its sharing of power in Balochistan with the Q League.

But the trust of the people is shaken when the maulana, at the same time, insists that his party and its partners in the MMA religious alliance will act in unison on the issue of elections. Now Qazi Hussain Ahmad would rather lay siege to Islamabad to drive Musharraf out than take part in elections held under his control. The distrust of the people in the religious parties and which way their leaders will go is, thus, spreading.

The stand of Nawaz Sharif is akin to that of Qazi Hussain Ahmad’s but he expects to return to the country riding the crest of a popular uprising that will send Musharraf into exile. Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, which has the broadest, if not the most steadfast, base of support in the country is constantly plagued by rumours of negotiating a backdoor deal with Musharraf. That is denied by the party but half-heartedly. The charter, thus, is unlikely to become a pact.

In this imbroglio, created as much by the government as by the opposition, the people cannot be blamed for losing trust in the leaders as a class. Out of this atmosphere of distrust arises the speculation that Benazir Bhutto and Maulana Fazlur Rehman might one day ditch, respectively, the ARD and MMA, to participate in elections while Nawaz Sharif cools his heels in London and Qazi Hussain Ahmad invades Islamabad.

What is puzzling are Musharraf’s intentions. That he would be a candidate for yet another term as president is beyond doubt. What remains to be seen is whether he presents himself for election to the present parliament and provincial assemblies or to the next elected one in October 2007.

Chaudhry Shujaat and some ministers, Sheikh Rashid being the most vocal among them, have been asserting all along that the present assemblies can elect Musharraf. More recently, the Q League’s secretary-general Mushahid Hussain, who though more credible and less garrulous of the lot, has confirmed that Musharraf will be (not can be) elected by the present parliament and assemblies. The law minister, Wasi Zafar, has advanced arguments in support which, though they run counter to the viewpoint of two retired judges published in this paper, will obviously hold sway. In fact, he goes a step further by arguing that the president will be elected while remaining the army chief and can keep the two posts for as long as he wishes.

The parties in opposition are now confronted with the stark choice of either contesting elections with Musharraf already installed as president in uniform or foil this scheme through negotiations, by a court order or through street agitation. Musharraf’s election by the present assemblies may be permissible under his own amendment to the Constitution but it would be politically untenable and morally wrong. He must be elected by the parliamentarians with whom he has to work.

At the root of the national distrust, however, lies the widely held public belief that the next elections, whenever held, will not be free and fair just as they have not been in the past. It is an indictment of all of our institutions and public servants who are sworn to act without fear and favour. The key to democracy lies in fair elections. Charters issued abroad or insurgencies stoked at home will not bring it about.

Going by the experience of fair elections held in 1970 and the unfair ones that followed, this writer is convinced that elections (that includes preparation of electoral rolls, delimitation of constituencies, actual polling, the campaign preceding it and adjudication of disputes following) cannot be rigged if the civil servants and policemen, election commissioners and judges — the majority if not all — were to stand up against political pressure and inducements.

And, finally, fairness and objectivity will be guaranteed if the Supreme Court is proactive during the election process in the same manner as it has been in dealing with a number of issues include kite-flying, wedding meals, illegal constructions and the privatisation of the steel mill.

Saving the soul of the sea

TO many Japanese, whale meat occupies the same place in the national psyche as cod liver oil in Britain: something children were forced to consume for their own good. As a result, the taste for whale has long since gone out of fashion in Japan. That makes it all the more remarkable that its government is willing to attract worldwide obloquy in its fetish for overturning the bar on commercial whaling that has been in place for the past 20 years.

This weekend the International Whaling Commission holds its annual meeting, and Japan appears to have cajoled a majority of member states to pay their fees and turn up to support its pro-hunting position. Japan still cannot muster enough votes for the 75 per cent margin needed to overturn the ban. But a simple majority allows it to tweak the rules and avoid condemnation of its “scientific” whaling.

For all the subsidies that Japan’s government lavishes on its faltering whaling industry and its search for international allies, the danger is that its hunting will exacerbate the threat to species already facing a growing danger from the environment.

Protecting whales from hunting may still not be enough if all there is for them to swim in is a lifeless, toxic soup.

—The Guardian, London




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