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A growing intolerance
All religious minorities, including non-Sunni Muslims, face persecution in Pakistan. Hindus carry the added burden of being identified with India.
Pardon the plugging of a piece by Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif that appeared in Dawn last week. It gives a perspective to the reported episodes of Hindus fleeing Pakistan that needs wide airing.
Hanif's story of a Hazara Shia teenager being packed off to Thailand for his protection (he writes in the same piece about meeting in Mumbai a Pakistani Hindu who had settled for good in the city) drives home the message that it is not just the non-Muslims who are insecure in Pakistan. Non-Sunni Muslim sects are equally threatened. Shias, in particular, are pulled out of buses and summarily executed in broad daylight in various parts of the country. Among the Shias, the Hazara Shias are particularly vulnerable as their distinctive Mongloid features are a dead giveaway. Many have been fleeing the country, seeking asylum in far-off lands. So targeted are the Shias that many wonder if Pakistan's founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah — a Shia — would have been able to live there today. Even back in 1948, Jinnah's state funeral was conducted as per Sunni traditions.
TARGETED HATE CAMPAIGN
Ahmedis are subject to a targeted hate campaign with lawyers calling for boycotting their products, wall writings inciting hatred towards them — sometimes reportedly even inside government buildings — and dome-like structures on their places of worship (the law of the land does not permit these structures to be called mosques) pulled down on court orders. Hindus have not met that fate, yet.
But, the pace at which Pakistan is getting radicalised, all those who do not subscribe to the Wahhabi/Salafi/Takfiri school of Islam are being targeted almost simultaneously. When Sufi shrines are bombed, how safe is the average Muslim who prefers Sufism to the puritan Wahhabism, insists on calling the month of fasting 'Ramzan' instead of the Saudi 'Ramadan' and sticks to 'Khuda Haafiz' in place of Zia-imposed 'Allah Hafiz'?
Hindus carry the added baggage of being identified with India. Hindus living in Islamabad claim their neighbours call them Indians because of their faith. Christians, in comparison, have gone out of their way to melt into the crowd by assuming Muslim names. So, a Paul or a Jacob is rare, the preferred names being Shahbaz, Shazia, Nasreen, Tahira, and such like. According to one estimate, 60 per cent of Christians have Muslim names. The lone Christian member of the federal cabinet who was assassinated last year had been christened Shahbaz Bhatti.
But then the bulk of Christians in Pakistan are in Punjab which has been on the radicalisation trajectory for decades. Sindh, according to defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, is fast catching up but the trend has largely gone ignored. Some data was provided by Jinnah Institute's Raza Rumi in a detailed article "Jinnah's Pakistan Cannot Be Abandoned'' on Pakistan's Independence Day. In Khairpur, 93 seminaries out of the 117 are not registered with the government and in Umerkot — where many Hindus reside — there are more than 400 madrassas, he wrote. This has changed the social fabric of a province known for its religious tolerance.
Given that Pakistan has not been regular with its census, verified population figures are difficult to come by. According to the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC), there are 7,000,000 Hindus in the country and nearly 94 per cent of them are in Sindh. "For the most part, Hindus in Pakistan are well educated and active in commerce, trade and the civil service," is how the PHC profiles the community on its website.
Though there have been reports of forced conversion of Hindu girls from different parts of the province in recent years, community leaders concede that this was generally ignored because the victims initially belonged to the lower castes. That is how the Rinkle Kumari case — of the girl who was allegedly kidnapped by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) parliamentarian, Mian Mithu, and forcibly married to his son — was different.
More such cases came to light and three of them were together taken up by the Supreme Court. But to the disappointment of the community, the apex court sent the girls back with their 'husbands' on the premise that they wanted to stay married to them. The girls' families maintain they said 'yes' under duress as they had been threatened with dire consequences. Rinkle Kumari is said to have attempted suicide several times in the past few months.
A further disappointment was that no enquiry was ordered into the actions of Mian Mithu — one of the pirs of Bharchundi Sharif. This added to the Hindu community's fear that the judgment would strengthen his hands as Hindus had exhausted practically all their options. So when reports of large-scale migration to India in the name of pilgrimage surfaced, the suggestion by some civil society organisations to petition the court was poor consolation.
Most Hindu organisations contacted maintained that all those going to India this month were part of a pilgrimage — routine for this time of the year — and expected a majority of the families to return. Others claimed that some of the families had shut shop and sold their properties before leaving on the pilgrimage; indicating that they would not return. In Jacobabad — home to about a lakh-and-a-half Hindus — there was apparently a tearful send-off expecting no return.
Though the community has seen it coming for a while now, there has been an escalation in violence, kidnappings and forced conversions of girls this year. The proverbial last straw on the camel's back was the kidnapping and forced conversion of girls, says vice-chairman of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (Sindh chapter), Amar Nath. He insists 50 per cent of Hindus living in Upper Sindh have moved out, the majority to Karachi. Those with the means have gone overseas.
In his estimate, 3,000 families have moved to India over the past three years. Last year, 300 families went to India on a pilgrimage and 60 of them stayed back.
The religious quotient of the issue apart, the relative prosperity of the Hindus of Upper Sindh also makes them easy prey for the Wadheras (feudal lords) of the province. Hindus who have spoken out have said the Wadheras are targeting them primarily to get them to leave their areas so that their properties can be taken over.
Harris Gazdar of the Karachi-based Collective for Social Science Research maintains that Hindus — particularly the most prominent 'Vanyas' — are generally known to be moneyed.
'MOTIVATED BY MONEY'
"Some of these crimes might be committed by groups with religious motivation, but most such crimes are motivated by money," said Mr. Gazdar. "Their being Hindu is relevant because they stand out as being economically successful, and they may not receive the level of protection other wealthy people expect to receive from the state."
The plight of the Scheduled Castes among Hindus is, expectedly, even worse. "They often complain that their plight is due to their minority status, and I think that this is a justified complaint." Compared to other migrant ethnic groups into the irrigated plains of Sindh, they have not been successful in gaining upward mobility through group-based solidarity and political leverage. "It is therefore hard to escape the conclusion that they being Hindu has marked them out as being 'not supported' and hence easy prey to local power groups. I have a feeling that the upper caste mercantile/professional Hindus do not have strong feelings of solidarity with this group."
Though both the federal and provincial governments have set up committees to enquire into the reports of an emigration and sent out teams to speak to the community, it has failed to instil any confidence; primarily because of the poor governance record of the PPP. This government's tenure has seen an escalation of violence on religious grounds and it does not help those living in fear of the religious right wing that the PPP is the most secular of all political parties in Pakistan. And, Sindh is the PPP's pocket borough.