Two years ago, while speaking on the occasion to mark 100 days of his government in office, Prime Minister Imran Khan made many a boast and promises. Besides waxing eloquent on turning Pakistan into a “model Islamic welfare state,” he also hit out at his Indian counterpart by saying, “We will show the Modi government how to treat minorities.” Unfortunately, despite this bold assurance, instances of atrocities against minorities in Pakistan have increased many fold under Khan’s watch.
US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Samuel Brownback has made things embarrassing for Khan by making it clear that as far as Pakistan was concerned, “a lot of their actions (against religious freedom) are done by the government.” So, it’s not at all surprising that Washington has designated Pakistan a ‘country of serious concern’ for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.” To make matters even more humiliating, Khan’s “how to treat minorities” barb directed at Modi boomeranged when US State Department summarily rejected US Commission for International Religious Freedom’s recommendation to designate India a ‘country of serious concern’!
Khan wants everyone to believe that his “Naya [new] Pakistan is Quaid’s [Jinnah’s] Pakistan” in which “minorities are treated as equal citizens, unlike what is happening in India” but this claim has hardly any takers. Au contraire, in its ‘World Report 2020’, Human Right Watch [HRW] has noted that along with women and transgender people, religious minorities in Pakistan “continued to face violence, discrimination, and persecution, with authorities often failing to provide adequate protection or hold perpetrators accountable.” Even Human Right Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has been extremely critical about the PTI-led government’s abysmal failure in protecting minorities, which it rightly feels are “doubly vulnerable”!
Islamabad dismisses widespread international criticism for failing to institute adequate safeguards to prevent religious persecution of its minorities by terming it an ‘opinion based on disinformation’. However, in its annual ‘State of Human Rights in 2019’ report [released in 2020], HRCP has noted that “Religious minorities remained unable to enjoy the freedom of religion or belief guaranteed to them under the constitution” adding that “Both the Hindu and Christian communities in Sindh and Punjab continued to report cases of forced conversion.” It also confirms that:
- “In Punjab, girls as young as 14 were forcibly converted and coerced into marriage.”
- “In Sindh, the case of two Hindu girls whose families claimed they had been kidnapped for marriage and converted forcibly, drew widespread attention when the Islamabad High Court ruled that the girls were not minors at the time of marriage and allowed them to return to their spouses.”
- “For the Ahmadiyya community in Punjab, this (religious persecution) included the desecration of several sites of worship.”
Contrary to Imran Khan’s promise to ensure “that our minorities are treated as equal citizens,” the year 2020 saw an alarming swell in incidents of persecution of minority communities. The most common being the repugnant practice of Hindu, Christian and Sikh girls (some as young as 12 to 13 years) being abducted and after being converted, being forced into marriage. Even Pakistani NGOs estimate that about 1,000 such incidents occur every year and this is why no one takes Khan’s assurance of minorities in Pakistan being “treated as equal citizens” seriously!
Another issue of concern is brazen desecration of holy sites of worship belonging to the minority communities. On January 3, 2020 a mob attempted to vandalise the historic Nankana Sahib Gurdwara and the entire incident was captured on video. However, Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO) played down this incident by calling it a “scuffle” between two Muslim groups over a “minor incident” at a tea stall. In reference to New Delhi’s complaint against desecration of this holy Sikh shrine, the Pakistani Foreign Office stated that “Attempts to paint this incident as a communal issue are patently motivated.” Whereas one would have really loved to believe that this incident had no communal angle, but following facts belie the Foreign Office’s assertion:
- If the incident was merely a minor scuffle between two Muslim groups, then how come the Gurudwara became the target of their ire?
- In the video, a mob can be heard cheering lustily as a speaker tells them that “We will ensure that there is not a single Sikh left in Nankana. And the name of this place will soon be changed from Nankana to Ghulam-e-Mustafa”. So, if this incident was just a row between two Muslim groups, then what explains the rabid anti-Sikh tirade of the speaker and its frenzied endorsement by the crowd?
- Lastly, if it was genuinely a minor and inconsequential incident as the Foreign Office claims, then why did Khan term this incident as “condemnable’ and take all the trouble of downplaying its distinctly communal character by saying that there’s a “major difference between the condemnable Nankana incident and the ongoing attacks across India on Muslims and other minorities”?
Besides Nankana Sahib Gurudwara, places of worship belonging to other minority communities in Pakistan were also subjected to vandalism last year. On May 9, 2020, a mob damaged the main gate and boundary wall of a church in Hakeempura area of Shekhupura district in Pakistan’s Punjab district and desecrated the Church’s Holy Cross. Once again, the authorities tried to brush this patently communal act under the carpet by terming it a property related dispute. In February, three Pakistani Christians who were constructing a church in Punjab’s Sahiwal district were assaulted and just two months later, a Pastor, his wife and son were attacked for building a wall on their own land. Once again, these incidents of intimidation of minority community members were passed off as instances of personal rivalry!
The year 2020 also saw multiple incidents of Hindu religious shrines being either destroyed or desecrated. On January 26, idols of the deities in Mata Deval Bhittani temple in Tharparkar district of Pakistan’s Sindh province were desecrated and holy texts kept inside were burnt. The police claimed that the perpetrators were minors and had broken into the temple just to steal money. What the police didn’t explain is that if their motive was only robbery, then why did the juveniles waste their time and energy in defacing idols and burning holy books?
On October 10, idols of deities inside Shri Ramdev Temple in Kario Ghanwar area of Badin district, Sindh, were destroyed, and the police once again ruled out communal angle by saying that the culprit was of unsound mind and a drug addict! Just two weeks later, a mob vandalised Nagarparkar Temple in Sindh province, damaging the idol of Goddess Durga during the holy ‘Navratri’ period. No one has been arrested. On November 2, a huge mob descended on Sheetal Temple in Karachi’s Lee Market area and destroyed idols of deities and other holy relics. This time the police sought to justify this highly communal act by terming it public reaction to blasphemous statements made by a Hindu boy!
On December 27, a mob not only vandalised and set ablaze a 100-year-old shrine housing samadhi [memorial] of a revered Hindu saint in the Karak district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Dawn News TV quoted an eyewitness saying that the incident of desecration and arson occurred after “More than a thousand people led by some local elders of a religious party held a protest and demanded the removal of the Hindu place.” Two developments make official apathy (or tacit complicity?) obvious. One, according to news reports, “The locals also revealed that residents of the nearby villages had announced a protest demonstration with demands of removal of the Hindu shrine, adding that the police totally ignored it” and two, it was Chief Justice of Pakistan and not Prime Minister Imran Khan who was first to take official cognisance of this sacrilegious incident.
Once again, the police tried to obfuscate reality. The District Police Officer (DPO) refused to acknowledge that the shrine had been vandalised and instead told media that a mob “attacked and demolished the under-construction building (within temple premises).” But Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari graciously acknowledged reality by tweeting- “Strongly condemn the burning of a Hindu temple by a mob in Karak, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa” – which is clearly visible in videos of this incident.
But desecration of religious shrines and abduction of girls followed by their forced conversion and marriages aren’t the only problem minorities face in Khan’s ‘Naya’ Pakistan. Even their settlements are being illegally demolished, often with official patronage. In May, a HRCP tweet mentioned that “HRCP is gravely concerned at reports that houses belonging to the Hindu and Christian communities of Yazman in Bahawalpur have been demolished, allegedly by local authorities with political influence.” It also stated that “evictions, the demolition of people’s houses, and land grabbing, esp. [especially] when such communities are doubly vulnerable, are highly condemnable.”
But if the administration is to be believed, then all’s well in Pakistan as far as minorities are concerned. Girls from minority communities aren’t being abducted but are of their own accord, eloping with their beaus (who at times are almost double their age). Vandalism of holy shrines belonging to minorities isn’t due to the prevailing communal frenzy but the handiwork of petty thieves, drug addicts, mentally deranged persons, or consequences of some land dispute and occasionally, ‘justified’ collective punishment of a minority community for some alleged blasphemous utterance by one of its members. Coupled with this, since Khan keeps harping on how “minorities are treated as equal citizens,” in his “Naya Pakistan,” why worry or lose sleep over this issue?