ALMOST every day brings forth evidence of the intolerable predicament of minorities in Pakistan. Either it is the desecration of a place of worship, allegations of forcible conversion, ransacking of a minority residential locality or even the lynching of individuals belonging to minority communities on accusations of blasphemy.
Over the years, as the state has slumbered on, unmindful of its shameful dereliction of duty to safeguard minority rights, predatory groups have taken advantage of a growing right-wing discourse in society to marginalise minorities in all spheres of life.
It seems to have taken no less than the horrific murder in Punjab of Christian brick kiln workers Sajjad and Shama on a blasphemy allegation to shake the state out of its stupor.
In compliance with a landmark judgment by former chief justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani that sought to address the persecution of minorities in Pakistan, the prime minister has announced the formation of a national commission to promote religious tolerance and interfaith harmony.
The commission, which is to include representatives of political and religious parties as well as those of minority communities, will have, among other responsibilities, the mandate to review laws and procedural practices that discriminate against minorities.
If the state actually intends to address the issue with the gravity it deserves, it must take some immediate steps to demonstrate its commitment.
Laws against hate speech, incitement to violence and desecration of worship places are already in place. Mob violence against minorities is almost always preceded by instigation on the part of local influentials/clerics, sometimes over a period of days. Then there are self-proclaimed ‘religious’ groups that openly call for the murder of members of certain communities.
The impunity with which such peddlers of religious intolerance operate in society must end, definitively and without discrimination. Consider, for example, what impression is created when Sawan Masih, a man found guilty of blasphemy that led to riots in Lahore’s Joseph Colony, is sentenced to death, while the trial of the enraged mob that rampaged through the area continues to grind through the courts — with all accused out on bail? That brings us to the blasphemy laws which disproportionately target minorities, and must be urgently reviewed.
It will take nothing less than a far-reaching exercise to purge society of entrenched religious biases that were assiduously cultivated over long decades of ill-conceived official policy and are now bearing fruit. Pakistan must spare no effort to reverse the tide.
Published in Dawn, November 27th , 2014