A fellow citizen and a friend, a Christian by faith, had to leave Pakistan and seek asylum as he and his family were threatened by a militant organisation.
The departments and agencies responsible for the safety of citizens and for maintaining law and order across Pakistan had acknowledged their inability and lack of willingness to protect this friend and his family. He has now settled in another country. And he feels more of a citizen there.
Another Pakistani friend, an Ahmadi, having lost his job because of religious bigots in his office, finally moved his family to Canada. I was talking to him recently and he mentioned that he lived with discrimination almost throughout his life in Pakistan and this was not only in the form of the two beatings he received at the hands of religiously-inspired mobs. In fact, he was referring to the more corrosive effects of the everyday discrimination that he had to face.
The social, political and economic space for minority communities seems to be narrowing all the time
Finally, when he could not see any future for himself and especially for his children, he migrated.
Over the last couple of decades I have seen many friends from minority groups of one hue or another (Christian, Shia, Ahmadi, Baloch, Hindu) leave Pakistan and not come back.
Some went for education and never returned, others migrated by applying via the ‘skilled people’ class, while some even had to seek asylum due to one issue or another at ‘home’. When I talk to them now, few seem to have gone willingly and all of them have one thing in common: they were forced to leave due to either direct or indirect persecution by dominant religious and/or nationalist groups.
Some have harrowing tales to tell. But all of them have plenty of stories about how they faced discrimination while even interacting with ordinary citizens or institutions of the state in their everyday lives. The latter, in many cases, more than the former, has left deeper scars.
We did a few Google searches on incidents involving minorities and reported in mainstream English-language newspapers in Pakistan over the last couple of years. Even though these searches were not very rigorous as they did not constitute all the incidents reported in all the papers, the results tell a very sad story. And here we are not talking of the incidents that are not reported in the papers at all or instances of everyday discrimination.
We came up with hundreds of reports of incidents where an individual or a group of people was involved and their being a member of a minority group was at least a partial reason for their involvement. There were more than 80 incidents involving Shias (targeted attacks were the most common cause in their death) and more than 70 incidents involving Christians (a number of cases pertained to blasphemy charges).
Many of the incidents involved not just one person but a family or group belonging to a certain community as exemplified by the violence perpetrated on Hazara pilgrims), leading to multiple fatalities in one incident.
Christian Pakistanis constitute only 1pc to 2pc of the country’s population; however, the 70-plus incidents in which they feature tell the tragic story of how some Pakistanis are being treated here and how the state is failing to protect its citizens.
There have been reports on these issues by various NGOs and rights groups, while civil society raises the issue and protests after every incident. Even the courts have taken notice of some of the larger issues. But, on the ground, little seems to have changed or is changing.
In fact, the social, political and economic space for these Pakistani citizens seems to be narrowing all the time. Ahmadis have been hounded out of jobs; they have been booked for ‘preaching’ their religion; they have been asked to remove Quranic verses from their places of worship; some have been denied burial space in graveyards. And many Christians and Hindus continue to be converted by force to Islam; and threats not only to the members of these communities but to any who raise their voice in support of their rights as citizens, have become a lot more common. We clearly need to do more to arrest and reverse the trend.
There is a more corrosive element that does not get as much attention as larger incidents. Slowly, but surely, extreme views that started from the fringes of our society have become the mainstream mode of thinking. This has been less noticed and has been less commented on. And there is less momentum to counter this as well.
People mention that wearing black kurtas is not a good idea anymore, and wearing Naad-i-Ali bracelet is a sure way of inviting trouble. A goatee is associated with being Ahmadi, and going to graves or mazars with Barelvis.
All of these, and many similar signs, are ‘deviations’ from the mainstream and are not tolerated well.
I remember a time in Pakistan when the frontier on social space was a lot wider. The debate was on sleeves or no sleeves, dupatta or no dupatta, beard or no beard rather than on the colour and size of the hijab, or the shape and length of the beard. Narrowing of any space hits the ‘deviants’ the hardest.
Should we just ask all minorities to leave Pakistan? If not, it is not enough to just allow them to exist on the fringes of society and deny them the rights due to citizens. But this, given the entrenched nature of discrimination in our society, cannot be the responsibility of state institutions alone.
All citizens have to stand up to ensure rights for all and have to take the risk of countering the dominant, narrow and bigoted narrative currently prevalent in our society.
The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.
Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2014