THE report prepared by Zeenat Hisam and Yasmin Qureshi on Religious minorities in Pakistan for the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) and launched last Tuesday at the South Asian conference on the subject does not really come as a revelation.
Pakistan has earned notoriety for its ill-treatment of non-Muslim communities — who are the so-called religious minorities in the country. The report is, however, timely, as also the conference was, on two counts.
First the authors have highlighted the socio-legal constraints the non-Muslim communities face in a state that is supposedly democratic and constitutional. Even the society they live in comprises people who profess to follow a religion that is said to be tolerant vis-à-vis all communities even if they are not Muslim. The report should come as a reminder to the people of Pakistan that it is time for them to shake themselves out of their complacency.
This complacency can be disturbing. At another group discussion I was invited to two days later, a sociologist claimed that the faith-based minorities faced no problem in Pakistan as her personal experience was that the media fabricated many of the reports and the minorities were content with their status.
Probably she had never heard of the members of minority communities being charged under the blasphemy laws. She also seemed unaware of tragedies like Shantinagar, Gojra and Joseph Colony.
Secondly, Piler’s conference which brought activists from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Pakistan together, clearly established that this intolerance towards the “other” is something that is not typical of Pakistan alone. This is a problem shared by South Asia. Of course, the intensity and nature of intolerance varies from country to country, but it exists all across the region. The speakers dwelt at length on the sufferings of the minorities in their own country.
This underlines some interrelated issues. One is the need for a democratic and secular political set-up that should not discriminate against a section of the population described as a minority by virtue of its own faith and the law and constitution in operation. The other is the need to promote education and awareness of human rights and tolerance in order to create a democratic culture in society.
Both these features go together and one without the other does not solve any problem. The fact is that a state with a democratic and secular constitution, as India, has experienced communal riots and carnage as in Ahmedabad and the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
And yet India is a state where seven years ago, as Mazhar Hussain, the delegate from India at the Piler conference, pointed out, the president was a Muslim, the prime minister was Sikh, the chief justice a Dalit, the commander-in-chief of the air force a Parsi and an Italian Christian was the Congress leader managing state affairs from behind the scenes.
In Pakistan, the constitution itself is full of contradictions and discriminates against the non-Muslims even though it speaks of all citizens being equal. With the mullah culture and Talibanisation on the rise, extremism and intolerance which was not such a problem before is now making life difficult for many, and that includes Muslims of different sects.
In the wider South Asian context, the problem spills across boundaries with the minorities in one country feeling the impact of violence in a neighbouring state. As Mazhar Hussain pointed out, when the Hindus in Pakistan are attacked, the Muslims in India have to bear the brunt of the anger sparked in the Hindu majority in that country.
It therefore makes sense to approach the problem in a regional perspective. It calls for greater political understanding among the various member states of Saarc because mistrust and suspicions among governments promotes animosities among their populations while preventing bonds of friendship at the people-to-people level.
Lack of contact and interaction among people of different states does not promote inter-faith dialogue or understanding among them. Most important of all, it allows unscrupulous elements to use religion for narrow political gains. In that context, the suggestion put forward at the Piler conference made eminent sense. It was recommended that a South Asian institute be set up to propagate the message of love and peace that is the essence of all religions.
While an organisation of this kind would institutionalise an on-going inter-faith dialogue among all communities, governments should also play a role in this respect. The commonality in the ethical values of all religions makes it possible for their followers to live in harmony.
The fact is that democracy is such a new phenomenon for the countries of this region that they have not had the time to develop a democratic culture which took centuries to evolve in the democracies of the West. The colonised world inherited the political structures of its colonial masters when it won its independence. But it missed out on the long evolutionary experience that had endowed Europe with its rich democratic and political traditions that enabled it to run its political system so smoothly.
It amounts to transplanting a system in an alien environment without the existence of the preconditions needed for its successful working. Thus many political scientists such as Harold Laski and John Strachey say that a measure of literacy and education in the voters is necessary for the successful working of a democracy. That presupposes that education teaches them tolerance and respect for diversity and plurality.