SOCIETY: A VOCATION OF BIAS

Updated 27 Sep 2020

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Sanitary work is a profession like other professions and it must be open to all citizens of Pakistan, not only to non-Muslims
Sanitary work is a profession like other professions and it must be open to all citizens of Pakistan, not only to non-Muslims

What do government advertisements discriminating against non-Muslims say about Pakistan as a society and state?

On September 2, an advertisement by the Office of Electric Inspector, Karachi appeared in daily Jang which described the required qualifications for a sanitary worker; the only one being that the applicants be non-Muslim.

This is an example of discriminatory practices rampant in the Government of Pakistan, which extend particularly to the hiring of new personnel. The civil society of Karachi have written a letter to Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah to take notice and give an answer for why these sorts of advertisements appear when they are in violation of Article 27 of the Constitution of Pakistan.

The September 2 ad is not a first. In July 2020, the Pakistani military placed a newspaper advertisement for sweepers, with the condition that only Christians should apply. Only after protest from activists, the condition was removed. On November 23, 2019, a job advertisement was released by the Government of Punjab’s Health Department in Narowal. It stated, “posts of the sanitation work shall be filled by the persons belonging to religious minorities only [sic].” On September 9, 2017 there was a similar advertisement by the Lahore Waste Management Company.

In 2015, there was a discriminatory advertisement by the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC). Civil society organisations, especially the Cecil & Iris Chaudhry Foundation in Lahore, raised objections to the ad and contacted the administration at PIC. It was horrifying to find out that this criterion is part of the Service Rules of the Punjab Health Department for the positions of sanitary worker/ sweeper/ sweepress/ jamadar/ khakrob. When members of civil society approached then Chief Minister Mian Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, a notification was issued to amend the service rules. But, to date, clearly no implementation has followed.

There is another ill practice prevalent in various institutions. Even when Muslims are employed as sanitation workers, they are privileged over their non-Muslim counterparts. According to a statement given by Mathew Gill, a Christian worker, “There are 65 Muslim sanitary workers employed in Mian Channu [Khanewal, Punjab]. They do not perform their duties, but they still get salaries. The non-Muslim sanitary workers are left to bear the whole pressure.”

A wider problem is the uncaring and disheartening attitude of the majority of society towards sanitary workers and religious minorities. Sanitary work is a profession like other professions and it must be open to all citizens of Pakistan. It requires commitment and hard work. It is a tough occupation and it must be respected like other professions. Relegating this profession to non-Muslims only shows that negative attitudes and sentiments about minority communities continue to prevail and, indeed, greater introspection is required from the whole of society, rather than the simple decrying of newspaper advertisements.

Status of non-Muslim Pakistanis

We must ask ourselves, is this all that religious minorities in Pakistan are capable of? Is this what the principles of egalitarianism and parity enshrined in our Constitution mean? What ideas about religious minorities exactly is the government trying to disseminate? What do advertisements discriminating against non-Muslims say about Pakistan as a society and state? It is a fact that religious minorities were a part of its creation and, soon after Partition in 1947, set out to build this country. Pakistan railways, customs, the post and the telegraph, police, foreign affairs, schools, colleges, courts of law, hospitals, health and sanitation services, all began to take shape with the help of Pakistani Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities serving at the forefront.

In the armed forces of Pakistan, Christian, Sikh and Hindu officers have rendered outstanding performances and exceptional levels of service. During the major wars Pakistan has fought, officers from religious minorities have not only excelled in competence and utmost professionalism, but have laid down their lives to defend the borders of this country that they so deeply loved. Therefore, after having pledged allegiance to Pakistan, not only did the religious minorities contribute towards its creation but have continued to contribute towards its defence, welfare and development.

It is extremely unfortunate and sad that religious minorities are effectively denied equal citizenship and opportunity; and the fact that governments release advertisements such as those discussed above. It is time to take action now and it is absolutely imperative for the Government of Sindh to take notice of the discriminatory advertisement of September 2; such degrading and discriminatory actions and policies are simply unacceptable.

Furthermore, both federal and provincial governments need to play a very active role in changing the narrative on how religious minorities are perceived in Pakistan, by acknowledging their contributions to the country and abolishing discriminatory policies.

Against the letter of the law

From a purely legal perspective, advertisements discriminating on the basis of religion are in violation of Article 27 (1) of the Constitution of Pakistan, which safeguards against discrimination in services. It states, “No citizen otherwise qualified for appointment in the service of Pakistan shall be discriminated against in respect of any such appointment on the ground only of race, religion, caste, sex, residence or place of birth.” So, the publishing of such advertisements only further impinges on the rights of minorities and lionises extremist elements of society.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The impetus to treat all citizens equally is also reflected in Articles 1-7 of the United Nations Convention on the elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), ratified by Pakistan in 1966. Therefore, the publishing of discriminatory advertisements by the government is also non-compliance of international obligations and as a member of the UN.

National human rights institutions, such as the National Commission for Minorities, should take notice of this sort of prejudice among citizens. The Supreme Court judgement by Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani on June 19, 2014 should be implemented in letter and spirit, which demands the creation of an institution to monitor the practical realisation of and to safeguard the rights provided to minorities under the Constitution and law. It further directs that appropriate curricula should be developed at school and college levels to promote a culture of religious and social tolerance.

Moreover, the role of outstanding non-Muslim Pakistanis needs to be recognised in the national curriculum as a vehicle to promote tolerance. Lessons about heroes such as Group Captain Cecil Chaudhary, Sister Mary Emily Gonsalves, Sr Ruth Lewis, Justice A. R. Cornelius and Justice Baghwandas should be part of the syllabus. All Pakistanis should know about the contributions of religious minorities. This is how a social and cultural understanding of ourselves can be developed.

As a last resort, the media should take ownership and refuse to print discriminatory ads that humiliate and hurt disadvantaged groups. The print and electronic media should instead highlight the contribution of all communities towards the development and progress of Pakistan, so that their audiences can recognise and enjoy the cultural, ethnic and religious diversity that exists in Pakistan.

This is only one of the ways to bring about a change in the intolerant mindset that exists today, which only sees religious minorities at the fringes of society. It can also pave the way towards peaceful co-existence between the various religious communities in Pakistan. This is a country that belongs to every single Pakistani, regardless of how they choose to worship.

The writer is a human rights activist. She works with Sanjog and is Executive Body Member of the Child Rights Movement Punjab. She tweets @NabilaFBhatti

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 27th, 2020