REVIEW: Being non-Muslim in Pakistan

Published January 12, 2014
Members of the Pakistani Hindu community make a rangoli during Diwali celebrations in Karachi. 	— Reuters
Members of the Pakistani Hindu community make a rangoli during Diwali celebrations in Karachi. — Reuters

Haroon Khalid’s A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities does not necessarily brandish any ground-breaking literary prowess, but definitely is an original and path-breaking contribution to the mainstream discourse on the issues of minority groups in Pakistan; precisely because it does not clump them together in the singular category of ‘minorities’. Khalid challenges preconceptions, tears apart generalisations, and makes a genuine attempt to get himself acquainted with the astronomical diversity of these groups of people.

The aptly titled A White Trail is an intimate travelogue that explores life lived in the most claustrophobic corners of Pakistani society. Khalid explores the socio-political narrative weaved around the religious and cultural festivals of Pakistani minorities, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Baha’i and Zoroastrian, in Punjab.Though a subjective account, Khalid manages to summon the sensitivity of a novelist. His sentences border on being sterile, but they are rescued by the profound clarity they offer on their subjects.

The exploration and analysis is peppered with the celebratory defiance that the religious and cultural festivals have come to symbolise in today’s Pakistan. In doing so, Khalid departs from the popular kink for persecution stories, which tend to position minority groups into the role of pitiful victims, and instead, ventures out to actually hear them.

The mainstream media has been unforgivingly callous in its treatment of minority groups. It is almost as if every atrocity unleashed on minority groups is an opportunity to package scenes of incomprehensible tragedy and switch off the cameras just after the cheque has cleared and just before anything coherent is said. Not only is Khalid able to manage the issue sensitively, he is also aware of the dignity of the people.

Moreover, the book holds the power to humiliate the powers that be. And as the realisation sets in that no proper ethnographic study has been conducted on minorities since the country’s birth, the reader begins to unearth a shameful, collective apathy towards the plight of those Pakistanis who are perceived as “aliens,” or “foreign agents” in their own country.

According to Khalid, this misplaced paranoia about “the other Pakistanis” is cast by the knock-on effects of international events and the domestic intertwining of a nationalist state project and an exclusionary Islamic identity. The genesis of this process of self-identification that has made Pakistan inseparable from Islam can be traced back to Partition, and this is exactly why Pakistani Muslims project confusing labels on their non-Muslim counterparts. So, after Partition, a Pakistani Hindu became “an Indian” and since the US drones intruded into our air-space, Pakistani Christians have become American imperialists: “For a lot of people who defined the two countries as Muslim and Hindu, the war was seen as Muslims being pitted against Hindus and Sikhs. Pakistani Hindus and Sikhs who had lived with their Muslim neighbours for centuries became ‘Indians’ overnight, as the ideological distinctions between Indian, Hindu and Sikh became blurred.”

The opening scenes are perhaps the most striking. A young boy comes running into the house of a Hindu woman and tells her about an approaching lynch-mob that seems hell-bent on avenging the demolition of the Babri Mosque in India — on the other side of the border. In panic, this Hindu woman and her family disperse. The mob had made its point. This scene is later juxtaposed when we meet the same woman, except that this time she is surrounded, not by the primordial frenzy of her assailants, but by the primal celebrations of Diwali and Holi.

There is an almost Lacanian insinuation lurking in the background: the US ‘war on terror’ has had a devastating effect on Pakistani identity. The general perception of an imperialistic threat felt by the Islamic community at large has inferred a sense of panic on Pakistan, whose own identity is haphazardly fused with a remarkably vague notion of Islam. Pakistani Muslims feel as if their entire universe is under threat, and in order to purge these threats, they must eliminate anything that destabilises their identity.

It is the sort of fascination a child has with a mirror; it becomes obsessed with the contours of its own existence, or as the Lacanian psychoanalysts put it: the permanent structure of subjectivity. Their own image captures and captivates them, and if this metaphorical mirror was to break — as it indeed has in Pakistan’s case — it would seem to the child that its own physical borders, and the abstract values contained within them, have shattered. In order to escape the imagined demolition of their identity, Pakistani Muslims have tried to invent ‘the other’; a stable mirror, a group of people against whom an identity can be formed. But Pakistani religious minorities are not the ideal candidates for this purpose; they represent an over-lap in history, a challenge to the notion of a ‘pure’ culture, isolated and removed from others. It is for this reason that Pakistan must reconsider its treatment of minorities.

The desperate attempts of religious minorities to assimilate themselves into the dominant culture, for example, the adoption of Muslim names, have been violently rejected in the recent decades. Perhaps because these attempts at bargaining further dilute the so-called ‘Pakistani / Muslim’ identity. (Ironically, a reversal of this phenomenon occurs in the Muslim diaspora, where Muslims take on Christian names — or what they prefer to call ‘business names’ — in order to avoid discrimination in the work place.) As violence against minorities has escalated, a bold invigoration of these lost cultures and practices has also resurfaced. This polarisation seems inevitable, but perhaps it is better than the surrender of history.

Khalid’s travels lead to the conclusion that the histories of Pakistani Hindus, Parsis, Christians, Sikhs and Muslims are in fact one history, whose collinear coordinates are plotted on a tumultuous trajectory. The partitioning of these deeply embedded histories has left an almost irreversibly violent rupture in the Pakistani narrative. He is nostalgic for a time of greater religious synthesis (“when mosques and temples shared a single wall”) but his romanticism is interrupted by one harrowing tale after another.

The most harrowing of these is the story of Rev. John Joseph who, in protest of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, shot himself in a courthouse in Sahiwal. Prior to his death, he wrote: “I shall count myself extremely fortunate if in this mission of breaking the barriers, our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people.” It is a moving story, and Rev Joseph had hoped that it would rally his fellow Pakistanis into stopping state-sanctioned atrocities but as Khalid solemnly concludes, “nothing has changed.”

A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities


By Haroon Khalid

Westland & Tranquebar Press, India

ISBN 978-93-83260-23-2




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