IN the matter of Pakistan’s treatment of its religious minorities, each week brings new shame.
The latest is Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s reaction on hearing a media report that several Hindu families from Jacobabad had chosen to emigrate to India to escape persecution: he termed the migration a “conspiracy” to defame Pakistan, ordered the FIA to investigate the situation before the travellers could be allowed to cross the border, and asked the Indian High Commission to explain why it issued visas to 250 Hindu citizens of Pakistan.
This reaction was disgusting, to say the least. Pakistan has sunk so low that it can cast itself as the victim when members of one of its minority communities potentially feel so persecuted that they take the harrowing decision to leave their homeland. This ‘conspiracy’ may be the most perverse incarnation of Pakistan’s persecution mania yet.
As it turned out, the families were only travelling to India to perform a pilgrimage and plan to return to Pakistan. But it is telling enough that the rumours of mass exodus — duly amplified by irresponsible media reporting — were sparked by the kidnapping earlier this month of a teenage Hindu girl, a resident of Jacobabad. Read between the lines of last week’s (incorrect) coverage of Hindu emigration, and a narrative emerges: of course they’re leaving; why wouldn’t they?
The treatment meted out to minorities, including Hindus, has been poor since Partition and has become progressively worse in recent years (and before I’m inundated with reminders of the maltreatment of Muslims in India or elsewhere, let me just say that one injustice does not justify another). In present-day Pakistan, Hindus find that their faith earns no respect, their businesses are looted or boycotted and many have complained that their daughters are abducted and forcibly converted to Islam through marriage.
Just earlier this year, we witnessed the dramatics surrounding Rinkle Kumari’s ‘marriage’. The Supreme Court intervened to determine whether or not she had been abducted and forcibly converted, but could reach no clear conclusions and left it up to Kumari to decide her own fate. Kumari chose to stay with her Muslim husband, but we will never know whether hers was actually a love marriage or a forced conversion — our society and justice system offer no opportunity for the truth of her circumstances to emerge and be upheld. Kumari’s family and civil rights activists maintain that she received threats from a local parliamentarian that prevented her from leaving her husband. While the mystery around Kumari’s circumstances endures, human rights groups report up to 25 instances of forced conversions each month.
Also earlier this year, controversy erupted around the historic Gorakhnath Temple in Peshawar, which was vandalised three times within two months. On the third attempt, the vandals were able to remove idols and burn pictures, leaving the Hindu community to wonder how hard it was for the authorities to provide security for their temple. The incident was a tragic case of one step forward, two steps back: the attacks occurred barely months after the Peshawar High Court ordered that the 160-year-old temple, which had been closed since Partition, be reopened.
In addition to such incidents, hatred against Hindus is enshrined in our public school curriculum. Government-issued textbooks repeatedly describe Hindus as intrinsically cruel and unjust, the eternal enemies of Islam.
To add injury to insult, our proliferating private media has decided that nothing can be more entertaining than the live, on-air conversion of a young Hindu man to Islam (or an inaccurately reported story about Hindus migrating, when they were only travelling to India for a pilgrimage — no doubt, this uproar will make life even more difficult for the Sindhi and Baloch Hindus on their return).
It probably doesn’t help matters that the mere possibility that Hindus might travel to India and complain about Pakistan — or, horror of horrors, deliver the ultimate snub by choosing to emigrate — can provoke a high-level FIA investigation and lead to the seven-hour-long detention at Wagah border of more than 250 Hindus, all equipped with required travel documentation.
Need I go on? In this context, how could Malik possibly suggest that an ‘external’ factor may have prompted a decision by Pakistan’s Hindus to leave the country? How far can we push our state of denial? This incident has made Pakistan seem simultaneously ridiculous and brutal in the eyes of the world. It has also reminded those who favour closer India-Pakistan ties just how tentative recent gains in the bilateral relationship are given the chronic paranoia that afflicts the powers that be.
Confronted with the possibility of a mass exodus by one of Pakistan’s religious minorities, the best President Asif Ali Zardari could do was constitute a three-member parliamentary committee to visit Hindus across Sindh to express solidarity and order local authorities to submit a report on the grievances of the Hindu community (as if these need any further documentation). Rather than waste time and energy on barely cosmetic measures, why not form a committee to revise all anti-minority sections of the public school curriculum? Or arrest some leaders of extremist organisations who routinely incite hatred and violence against all Pakistan’s religious minorities? Or deploy some enlightened clerics to preach tolerance and genuine Islamic values of acceptance and coexistence in multi-faith communities?
The only conspiracy against Pakistan is the one being hatched by politicians who lack the strength, vision and credibility to bring about genuine social and economic reform in this country.
The writer is a freelance journalist.