THE Punjab government is increasingly showing signs of its willingness to work towards the protection of the rights of minorities in the province. Last December, the provincial government announced the Minorities Empowerment Package aimed at uplifting marginalised religious communities. And now, after a meeting with the National Commission for Minority Rights, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar has given directives for the collection of details of non-Muslim employees to ensure the protection of their rights, such as giving them a holiday on days of religious significance. He also announced Rs25m (in addition to a similar amount already allocated under the empowerment package) for scholarships to non-Muslim research and post-graduate students. Given the province’s chequered history with regard to extremism and violence against minorities, these efforts by the Punjab government are an encouraging sign of its desire to promote religious inclusion and harmony. Official proactive efforts might also check discriminatory attitudes towards non-Muslim co-workers by their Muslim superiors or colleagues.
Despite being the hub of political power in the country, Punjab has witnessed among the worst instances of religiously motivated violence against members of minority communities. Incidents such as the brutal anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953 and 1974, the merciless burning of Christian houses in Gojra (Toba Tek Singh) in 2009 and Badami Bagh (Lahore) in 2013, and the burning to death of a Christian couple in Kot Radha Kishan (Kasur) in 2014 remain etched in the nation’s collective memory. However, some decisions taken by the judiciary and the government in the recent past — such as the acquittal of Aasia Bibi in a blasphemy case; the Supreme Court’s decision to constitute a special bench to protect minority rights in light of a 2014 landmark verdict; and the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh pilgrims — have led to some much-needed course correction. It is true that minority citizens in Pakistan are still marginalised to a large degree, and enjoy fewer freedoms than their Muslim counterparts. However, consistent efforts on the part of the federal and provincial governments to promote religious harmony and the rule of law will slowly but surely reverse at least some of the religiously motivated bigotry that non-Muslims in this country have been subjected to for several decades. It is to be hoped that the Punjab government delivers on what it has promised to the non-Muslim communities of the province, and that the rest of the country also emulates its example.
Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2019