LAST week’s case of Sindhi Hindu families travelling to India should be a wake-up call for all those in positions of power in Pakistan. They will continue their present policies towards minorities at grave peril to themselves and the state.
The official response to reports that Hindu Pakistanis were emigrating was unbecoming of a responsible authority. The Indian High Commission was unnecessarily, and imprudently, criticised for issuing a couple of hundred visas. This was contrary not only to diplomatic propriety but also to the citizens’ right to leave the country and return to it as they wish.
Much noise was made about the procedure that requires Pakistanis wanting to walk across the Wagah border in a group to obtain clearance from the interior ministry. The practice for travellers without resources is that ministry officials sit on their applications for no-objection certificates for days under the stock excuse that clearance by the intelligence agencies is awaited.
The process clearly violates one of the people’s basic rights, the right to travel. It also appears to be contrary to the immigration law that requires the authorities to bar a citizen from going abroad only after informing him of the restriction placed on him and after giving him an opportunity to challenge it. One hopes the proposal of making the NOC condition mandatory for non-Muslim citizens will soon be expunged from official memory, as the idea is simply preposterous.
But the real issue is not travel restrictions for minorities, it is the trend among them of giving up on Pakistan. The inconclusive debate on whether last week’s travellers wanted to leave the country for good should not prevent anyone from accepting the fact that the rate of emigration by minority families has been rising for quite some time.
Reports that a good number of Hindu families from Ghotki, Mirpurkhas, Sukkur and Jacobabad have migrated to India cannot be discounted. Nor can reports of similar emigration from Balochistan be denied. Nobody should be surprised to learn that some Hindu activists have started knocking at the doors of foreign missions. The idea of appealing to the world outside is catching on.
While all minorities including Ahmedis, Shias (the Hazaras in particular) and Christians, too, are suffering as a result of the majority community’s creed of intolerance and the state’s negligence, at the moment we are concerned with the plight of Hindu citizens, though the practical steps suggested here will embrace all minorities.
While the more vocal among their leaders have consistently protested against the discriminatory provisions in the constitution and the law, Pakistani Hindus have, by and large, displayed great qualities of forbearance by resigning themselves to their status as second-class citizens as long as they are allowed to pursue their vocations and live with some vestiges of dignity. It is the inability to realise even these modest expectations that has driven them to despair.
Of the numerous Hindu grievances one need pick out only a few. They were hurt when their shrines and the attached properties were seized by the state or influential members of the majority community. Their needs were ignored while new housing colonies were planned and their right to buy plots in officially sponsored colonies was denied. Members of scheduled castes were either driven off the lands they had been cultivating for decades, maybe centuries, or turned into bonded labour. They put up with discrimination in access to state employment and educational opportunities in the hope of being left free to run their private businesses. This too has become increasingly difficult.
Worse, they began to be targeted for abduction for ransom, threats to their lives and property became more common, and the forced conversions and marriages of their girls took the form of campaigns organised by well-known clerics and political figures. On top of everything they got the feeling that the state did not even listen to their grievances.
What has perhaps deepened the frustration of non-Muslim citizens is the realisation that no good can be expected of a government that did not have the courage to condemn the killers of its governor and minister or those responsible for the massacres of Shias in Balochistan, Kurram Agency and Gilgit-Baltistan. They are not the only ones to believe that at the speed with which religious extremists are encroaching on public space and gaining acceptability by the elite, Pakistan could become unliveable not only for minorities but for a great many Muslims too.
Notice may also be taken of the view that stories of Hindu emigration are being played up with a view to increasing their fears and thus accelerating their exodus. This only increases the media’s responsibility to be careful in reporting minority affairs.
In any case the situation is indeed far graver than it has ever been presented in the media or elsewhere. The time for dealing with it through sermons or flat denials is past. Nothing will be gained by running news on TV to the effect that Hindus, Sikhs and Christians are buying national flags as enthusiastically as patriotic Muslims, though it may well be true. The time has come for the state to undertake a thorough reappraisal of whatever is amiss in law and social practice with regard to the right of minorities to be treated as equal citizens of Pakistan.
While their day-to-day concerns should be addressed by the administration, a high-powered commission must be set up for a two-track inquiry. Firstly, the commission should travel across the country to meet members of minority communities and gather their testimonies on all possible reasons for dissatisfaction.
The other task of the commission should be to find answers to the following: how many killers of minorities have been caught and punished? How many victims of abductions for ransom have won freedom through official efforts? What action has been taken against hate-preachers and those who have called for murder and arson? What steps have been taken to free executive officers and police forces of their communal biases?
What is the answer to involuntary conversions and forced marriages? Why have redress mechanisms, from the so-called Minorities Commission to district committees on minorities, failed to deliver? And to what extent have political parties and other civil society elements defended minorities’ rights?
If the proposed commission starts functioning soon and is seen to be proceeding honestly and diligently, minorities may be persuaded to suspend their judgment on the incorrigibility of Pakistan’s officialdom. But their final judgment will depend on the degree of the commission’s efficiency, its impartiality and its courage in upholding the truth and justice.