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Tyranny of the minority

Published Sep 07, 2012 12:05am


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THE shameful incarceration of a young Christian girl on trumped-up blasphemy charges has provoked outrage across a wide cross section of ordinary people in Pakistan and beyond, and expectedly so.

What has followed, however, was most definitely not in the script. The religious right, clearly conscious of the bad press that has been generated by the targeting of a mentally challenged girl, actually appears to have been forced into a measure of retreat.

The star witness in almost every blasphemy case is some no-name cleric similar to the one who accused the girl of blasphemy, and the ‘evidence’ upon which such accusers rely is usually just as dodgy as in this particular instance. So what explains the twist in the tale? Might the tables actually be turning in favour of this country’s long-suffering religious minorities, both in the realm of public opinion and with regard to the state’s posture?

I think not. Quite apart from the fact that the girl is still in jail, if there is a less unhappy conclusion to this case it will be because both objective and subjective factors have conspired to produce an aberration, not because a new norm has been established. Progressives should be wary of counting their chickens before they have hatched.

Instead, we should be engaging in much more introspection than we are typically wont to do during and after such episodes. Moral indignation is all good and well, but only insofar as it precipitates meaningful political action.

Christians and other religious minorities in this country are indeed amongst the most excluded and victimised of all Pakistanis. Liberals have long protested the legal disempowerment of non-Muslims, particularly following the constitutional and social interventions made by Gen Ziaul Haq. There can be no defence of the fact that the state of Pakistan designates religious minorities as second-class citizens (even if citizenship rights are a luxury enjoyed by very few Pakistanis, whatever their religious affiliation).

But liberals evince a curious disinterest in the other more insidious and day-to-day forms of exploitation to which a majority of non-Muslims in this country are subjected. Christians and Hindus in particular face the worst kind of discrimination along caste lines, suffering from what in the academic literature is called ‘untouchability’. This is compounded by their occupation of the lowest rung on the class ladder.

As a general rule, Christians dominate the municipal services in urban centres. Generation after generation of young Christians are hired as ‘sweepers’ by government agencies, while Christian women spend the majority of their lives working as informal labourers in rich people’s houses, cleaning toilets just like their male counterparts in offices.

Ironically, or perhaps not, this class of ‘sweepers’ live out their lives in unregulated and often filthy katchi abadis, or squatter settlements. Many survive in perilous conditions on the banks of natural drains, or nullahs, constantly facing the threat of having their mud homes washed away when the monsoon rains come.

And if nature is kind enough to spare them, the eviction crew of the local development authority makes sure to show up every few years to bulldoze their homes into the ground so as to push up the designated bhatta or simply because the formal state has decided it is time to do something ‘useful’ with the land. Needless to say, the ‘use’ value of sweepers does not translate into more permanent and humane arrangements for their housing.

Hindus are generally less visible than Christians, but no less violated. A majority of Hindus live in rural Sindh where they are considered capable only of the worst kinds of indentured labour. They are often distinguished from other (Muslim) castes by the clothes they wear, and in the case of women, particular kinds of ornaments.

There are more Hindus integrated into mainstream Sindhi society than, say, Christians in urban Punjab, but the difference is hardly great. Christians can be found in Punjabi villages too, and it is from here that many migrate into cities, often willingly so despite the future they know awaits them in the bastions of Pakistani modernity.

So why is it that class and caste oppression of non-Muslims is so understated in spite of the existence of so many organisations and individuals working on ‘minority rights’? And why is it that the same liberals who raise a hue and cry about blasphemy and other such cases — which of course everyone should — are least concerned with the living and working conditions of the Christians who show up daily to clean their mansions?

These are serious questions and they demand serious answers. Unfortunately, there are too few well-to-do folks in Pakistan who wish to provide them. In fact my sense is that many upper-class liberals would much rather that katchi abadis be eliminated from the cityscape entirely, contributing as they do to a depreciation of prices of land in otherwise ‘respected’ neighbourhoods.

Class and caste are very real and very disturbing aspects of our shared social reality. But they are almost totally swept under the carpet in mainstream discourse, let alone politics. More troubling is the fact that progressives — and liberals in particular — find it utterly unproblematic to separate caste and class oppression from discrimination based on one’s faith, when in fact to do so is to engage in the worst kind of obfuscation.

Like in all excluded and impoverished communities, a host of social ills plague religious minorities living in katchi abadis and in relatively isolated rural settlements. Domestic violence is common, as is substance abuse. There is no question, therefore, of romanticising the poor, or the potentialities that exist within poor communities to extricate themselves from the traps of dependency and disempowerment.

The privileged segments of society either acknowledge the structural violence that such communities face or risk pushing them into a corner and facing reaction. We have successfully chosen the latter option, and we cannot put all the blame on Ziaul Haq.

The tyranny of the majority that has left Pakistani non-Muslims struggling to protect the most basic right of all — the right to life — is at one and the same time a tyranny of the minority, the minority of the rich, powerful and self-obsessed. This minority may be liberal in its outlook and supportive of unlimited personal freedoms in principle, but it is content in the knowledge that in actually existing Pakistan there is no threat to its unparalleled privilege.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (22) Closed

Aamir Sep 07, 2012 09:52am
A good article, in fact this episode of Rimsha is a slap on the face of entire Pakistani nation, but you know we have become so immune to such wake up calls by nature that if we do not amend our ways, ultimate destruction is actually what we seek and the same God will abandon us for our such cruelties whom we try to appease by playing these rituals of generating and then eradicating blasphemers. There is no bigger blasphemer than the hardline mullahs of Pakistan. They defame the name of Allah more than anyone else.
A. Malik Sep 08, 2012 03:01am
What a shame that we, in Pakistan, are up in arms when Muslim minority in some country is ill treated, while in Pakistan we continue to discriminate against and terrorise the non-muslim minorities. If only we could understand what Islam is all about.
Sumant Sep 07, 2012 03:18pm
If it were not for Western leaders and media this case would be dismissed as a minor nuisance by most pakistanis. It boggles the mind that a smug tone deaf professor would use the title 'tyranny of the minority' to highlight the precarious position of the Christian and Hindu minorities. But I guess it confirms the opinion of the rest of the world that the Pakistani elite have very little insight into the monstrosity they have created through their smug righteousness and lack of compassion.
Salim Sep 08, 2012 12:20am
Zulam,pure and simple. Surely a day will come when they will be held accountable.
Gerry D'Cunha Sep 07, 2012 02:49pm
Toti34: what can you expect from the illetrate moulvi who does not know the difference between 'God and Allah' one can call his creator by any name,but follow His law. Do they follow His law even after 5 times a day prayers
asad Sep 13, 2012 05:52am
"Pakistani nation is good and believe in justice".... what utter nonsense. Countries are comprised of people and no person is perfect; no one is 100% good and no one is 100% bad. With this being said, all we can do is highlight the bad so that we can try to improve ourselves and improve the country. If Pakistan was "good and believes in justice" we would be doing something about the missing people in Balochistan, we would be doing something about the killings of other religious minorities (shias, ahmadis etc). if we were "good" we would have mourned the death of Salman Taseer instead of celebrating it. If we are "good" then why doesn't the "whole nation" stand up (as you put it) on these issues??
Laeeq,NY Sep 07, 2012 12:46pm
This is another face of blasphemy, committed by almost by every one and every day life. This is against the very core values of religion of Islam.
Joe Sep 07, 2012 11:29pm
It is an eloquent article and powerful "wake up" call for Pakistani society.
Syed Sep 07, 2012 10:25pm
Again the same rhetoric that blasphemy. Law is in itself bad rather than finding ways to fairly implement it. If the liberals are so educated then they should come up with something to prosecute the ones who misuse. It. They are using the same formula as mullah do that since tv program are getting obscene. So get rid of tv rather then improving tv shows
Humanist Sep 07, 2012 10:01pm
Blasphemy Blasphemy Laws are vague and imprecise.and do not clearly define the crime, therefore, these are open to abuse and exploitation by any mischievous religious person. In almost all cases in Pakistan, the Blasphemy laws have been abused for personal vendetta and to settle interpersonal and religious disputes & business interests. Because of the mob passions involved, courts and administration openly indulge in injustices and repression making the innocent victims and their families suffer. Before the emergence of these fascist religious laws, there were almost no incidences of Blasphemy, now there are hundreds every year.... It is necessary for the Govt to look into the recommendation contained in the Judicial judgements of these cases and : 1. Temporarily stop the implementations of the Blasphemy laws and form a judicial commission to look into the matter 2. In cases where the accusations are not proved, the witnesses and the accusers should be automatically persecuted with the sentences equivalent to the sentences for the crime accused..
ROHIT PANDEY Sep 07, 2012 09:35pm
Friend,there is nothing called BLASPHEMY in the Hindu faith for it is an amalgam of beliefs and Hindus feel none is better than another! Try to think on same lines and you will be a lot better. Frankly we dont care if the muzzein calls for prayer invoking Allah or Bhagwan or Krishna... Mothers might fret about a child being disturbed when studying for exams or a baby being ,woken up by a muzzein call but that is all about it! No one cares really!
ROHIT PANDEY Sep 07, 2012 09:29pm
Shelve religion as the driving force of polity and you Pakistanis/Muslims will be a lot happier. The secret of Hindus' confidence in secularism is their easy and "anything goes" attitude to business of faith and where the choice of belief is left to the believer and no one interferes in it. Read up the article " We are all Hindus now" by one Lisa Miller on the net? The article examines Hindu beliefs and it's similarity to spiritual quest of present day Americans. Do reduce the role of religion by 99% in your polity and peace will certainly return to long suffering Pakistan and Muslims!
Akram Sep 07, 2012 02:25pm
I agree with the author on the concept that the blasphemy laws are a joke, the willful misuse of such laws to settle vendettas is pretty obvious, however whilst sympathizing with the view about minorities not necessarily being given equal economic opportunities, this is the case also for the poor amongst our own Muslims, not necessarily a minority based policy, its also a historical case for minorities in the rest of the subcontinent in India and Bangladesh and not Pakistan specific.
Anand Sep 07, 2012 07:29pm
It is a just legal system that creates hope in the presence of social evils and injustice. And a government that favors one system of belief (which itself is a matter of opinion and preference, even amongst muslims of different sects) over any other sets the stage for no recourse under the law, and therefore no hope for change, reformation or recovery. Justice always will prevail. Pakistan and islamic/religion-based legal systems are on the wrong side of history in that sense. And therefore irretrievably doomed for irrelevance first, and then extinction. Unless change comes fast and now.
hajra Sep 07, 2012 09:18am
good one aasim and i think the title is great!
INDRA Sep 07, 2012 01:18pm
Good eye opener write up sir hats off to you thanx
Toti34 Sep 07, 2012 06:25am
Blasphemy laws are making Pakistan a laughing stock in the world. This law does not stand the test of fairness or morality. When a Maulvi in India calls people for prayers, he uses the word "There is no God but Allah" 5 times a day, is it not blasphemy against the majority Indian faith? Will Pakistan allow a hindu to call hindus by saying: There is no God but Bhagwan? Obviously not. This law must be changed.
Shah Sep 07, 2012 05:23pm
Slap on your face! The Pakistani nation is good and believe in justice. That is why the whole nation stood up to protect the judiciary. That is also why this case is in the main stream Pakistani media: because we care! When will the day come when Indian media will take up the case of missing people in Kashmir - and the thousands of Christians killed in Orissa this very same way?
varuag Sep 07, 2012 01:54pm
I always enjoy your articles .....
Caz Sep 07, 2012 05:16pm
Let us realise that reason must never be subservient to belief. That is the problem in pakistan, but such realisation undermines the basis of the state. That is the problem with an invalid entity.
sam Sep 07, 2012 05:59pm
Maybe other countries also should have Blasphemy laws. So in Christian countries, they should prosecute anyone claiming that there is another God apart from Jesus Christ.
Rao Sep 07, 2012 06:51pm
Nothing is going to change. Pakistan was founded for Muslims only and such a dream has been fulfilled so why change anything?