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Tyranny of the minority

September 07, 2012


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.