It’s National Minorities Day again and the government will undoubtedly cite its 'achievements' in this area. I don't claim to be an expert on the subject of minority rights but I do have the experience of living as a member of a religious minority in this country, which I think can count for something.
To be fair, I am one of the lucky ones. I have had all the opportunities, and faced very few of the challenges that shape the lives and experiences of people of other faiths living in Pakistan.
I went to a school where my beliefs were rarely challenged and I was not forced to study Islamiat; to a college and university where, despite being different from about 98 per cent of the students, I was not treated very differently; and into a job market where employers did not discriminate against me on the basis of my faith.
Sure, there were odd incidents every now and then, like the time I called Osama bin Laden an evil man after the 1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa only to be firmly told by one of the girls in my college circle that he was a very good Muslim, and how would I know?
Or all the times I had to dispute the generalisations people made about Christians (they cannot read or write Urdu, they are usually dark, etc), or that time when someone I met through work very casually called me ‘curranti’ and thought nothing of it.
But I think these are all examples of ignorance rather than persecution or discrimination – an ignorance that has been encouraged by the state, the clergy and the education system, but ignorance nonetheless.
I wish I could say that the same was true for all my brothers and sisters of other faiths living in Pakistan. We have all seen and read the stories that make the headlines: the Joseph Town incident, the burning of Shama and Shehzad in the brick kiln, and countless others.
Nothing can mask the ugliness of these travesties, but it is the petty instances of discrimination that we encounter in our day-to-day lives that make my heart even sadder; that keep reminding me how deeply intolerance has become entrenched in our society.
There are hundreds of stories to be told, but I would like to share two of them here.
My mother used to work in a private bank a few years ago. She told me about how Muslim cleaners at the bank would refuse to do clean the bathrooms or sweep the floors, because they believed that only Christians and Hindus were fit for these tasks. Their supervisor apparently agreed with the view, because Muslim cleaners did the dusting while the Christians and Hindus were told to do the 'dirty' work.
Then there is an incident that took place in an apartment building; a place where Muslims, Christians, Bohris, Parsis and Hindus have peacefully co-existed for years. A Hindu family wanted to buy a vacant apartment, but this was not to be.
In a campaign led by a few other residents, the Hindu family was refused their basic right of acquiring the property. It was claimed that instructions to prevent Hindus from acquiring apartments had come from an army office located near the building, based on the so-called belief that all Hindus are Indian spies. That claim was later found out to be false.
Personal conversations revealed that the bigoted residents were actually really concerned about the family setting up idols in their home as part of their religious rites. There were some other, more rational residents, who suggested that what the Hindu family did in their home was their private business, but the voices of sanity were silenced.
Also read: Where should a Pakistani Hindu go?
With discrimination happening at every level of society, from the allotment of government jobs where the so-called five per cent job quota for minorities is often totally ignored and manipulated, to the petty incidences of hatred and intolerance that we see all around us, it is difficult to celebrate National Minorities Day.
Perhaps, it would make more sense if the government took on the task of creating a more tolerant society (cracking down on hate literature is one good initiative, but it requires implementation and follow-ups). We, as individuals, could do the same by re-examining our attitude towards others and create examples of love, justice and fair play.
We could then institute a National Equality Day. I could live with that.