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November 12, 2017


Graves of victims of a 2010 attack on Ahmadis in Chenab Nagar (formerly known as Rabwah), where the community has been living since Partition | Reuters
Graves of victims of a 2010 attack on Ahmadis in Chenab Nagar (formerly known as Rabwah), where the community has been living since Partition | Reuters

Pakistan has consistently been in the news with reports on religious persecution, ranging from mob violence and arson on a Christian colony to the ongoing harassment of Ahmadis, to sectarian target killings. Persistent and intense persecution of minorities (whether non-Muslims or non-Sunni sects) has been a feature of the country’s polity for the past few decades in particular and shows little signs of abating. Documenting this and publicising the trends should be the first step towards countering the forces that perpetuate this state of affairs. As such, any effort in this direction is to be welcomed.

Farahnaz Ispahani’s book Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities carries the promise of going beyond just documentation though, with a subtitle referring to the history of minorities in Pakistan. One therefore approaches the book with high expectations, but soon realises that this is more of a compilation of facts, albeit dating from the early years of the country’s creation.

Ispahani begins with a brief overview of conditions in pre-Partition India and refers to the beginnings of communal violence and divisions along religious lines amongst the electorate. She is at pains to point out that the leaders of both the Congress and the Muslim League had not anticipated large-scale migration and both countries were supposed to come into existence with a sizable proportion of minorities. That this did not happen is testament to the unplanned, rushed-through nature of Lord Louis Mountbatten’s decision. Ispahani contends that the mayhem and murder that occurred at the time laid the foundations for Pakistan’s foray into religious discrimination. She traces the reactions of Hindu legislators to the introduction of the Objectives Resolution, and the dismay of some Muslim League leaders, notably Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, at what he perceived as attempts to marginalise minorities. She goes on to chronicle the anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953 and the proceedings of the Munir-Kayani Report which was constituted to investigate the causes of this agitation. As the author correctly points out, the findings of the report went way beyond an explanation for the riots and pointed to the dangers inherent in the rise of obscurantism in Pakistan.

Farahnaz Ispahani’s 2015 book, recently published in Pakistan, documents discrimination against religious minorities, but lacks in analysis

The book continues on this theme, moving through Pakistan’s history and reflecting on how the state was consistently unsuccessful in promoting an inclusive view of society in the 1950s and 1960s, and then, in fact, itself became active in promoting intolerance in the 1970s and 1980s. The author was a member of a political party and her affiliation precludes her from being too critical of certain phases of Pakistan’s history; she correctly characterises the ’60s as a time of growing militarism and the promotion of a non-inclusive national identity, but characterises the ’70s as a time when the government undertook a “balancing act” in what she sees as a series of actions designed to de-fang religious elements without causing too much damage. She points out that the anti-Ahmadi agitation of 1974 was not very intense and could have been easily thwarted by the administration. In addition, the Speaker of the National Assembly had ruled out a debate on the issue of whether or not Ahmadis were Muslim. In spite of this, less than two weeks after the Speaker’s ruling, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared that he would ask the National Assembly to hold such a debate and vote on the issue.

Ispahani provides no insight into why this change of heart occurred and gives no explanation for Bhutto’s motivation. She emphasises that even after the second Constitutional Amendment was passed, Bhutto continued to insist that all citizens, including non-Muslims, would have full freedom of religion, but she does not comment on why a politician of Bhutto’s perspicacity failed to see that he was opening the floodgates for the worst forms of persecution against the community.

The full force of the history of persecution in Pakistan comes out in the chapters on the rule of Gen Ziaul Haq and after. Ispahani is thorough in her description, giving specifics of the legislation that targeted minorities, particularly Ahmadis and Shias, and detailing how the curriculum was amended to promote the views of the majority sect while denigrating the views of others. In subsequent chapters, she talks about how successive democratic governments failed to put the genie back in bottle. The last chapter, covering the rule of Gen Pervez Musharraf, focuses particularly on blasphemy allegations and how these have proliferated in the last decade.

Ispahani’s account is a good overview of how Pakistan’s tortuous history of violence and persecution against minorities has played out. However, it is mainly descriptive and not analytical. The information is well laid out and provides some context, but does not delve into the motivations and objectives of the various protagonists. Most of the information here is readily available in newspapers and on the internet and while it is certainly useful to have it presented in a consolidated, sequentially arranged form, one feels the writer has lost an opportunity to significantly add to the reader’s understanding. Perhaps it could be because Ispahani is based abroad and opportunities for primary research may have been few and far between. In any event, she is primarily a journalist and her style is primarily descriptive.

Nevertheless, the account would have benefitted from some probing — the section on the 1970s and the process of the Second Amendment (that declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims) could, in fact, have been discussed with reference to the 1974 proceedings of the National Assembly which have been public for the last two years and yield some interesting insights. They do not, however, present the first PPP government in a very positive light. Similarly, although the book is supposed to be about minorities in general, Ispahani has little to say about the plight of Christians and Hindus in Pakistan; the former are mainly discussed in the context of the blasphemy cases that have arisen over the last decade whereas the community has suffered a series of setbacks over the last few decades, and a whole subset of the Christian community — the Anglo-Indians — have largely disappeared because of mass migration abroad.

The book is enlightening and an excellent effort to highlight the issues faced by minorities in Pakistan. Perhaps this initial effort will motivate the author in future to pick one or two communities or a few cases and explore the issues in a little more detail. As it is, we know that minorities have suffered in Pakistan. What we need to know now is who orchestrated the campaigns against them and who has benefitted from this state of affairs.

The reviewer is a research and policy analyst

Purifying the Land of
the Pure: A History of
Pakistan’s Religious
By Farahnaz Ispahani
Oxford University Press,
ISBN: 978-0190621650

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 12th, 2017