By Raza Rumi
Politician and former journalist Farahnaz Ispahani. Credit: Wikimedia
Raza Rumi in
conversation with politician Farahnaz Ispahani on her new book and the steps
the Pakistani government needs to take to improve the status of minorities.
Your book shows how the total size of
Pakistan’s minorities declined from 1947 to the present levels of 3.4%. Was it
a deliberate cleansing or an out-migration?
The Pakistani state has failed to protect
religious minorities from its earliest days. The violence that attended
partition resulted in a massive movement of population and virtual ethnic cleansing,
especially in Punjab. East Punjab had very few Muslims left and Hindus and
Sikhs were forced out of western Punjab.
It was a combination of frenzy generated by
politics of communal hatred and other factors, including the desire of some to
create a Pakistan very different from what Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah
My book traces the history of Pakistan’s
religious minorities. The first stage in the history reflected forced changes
in demographics that significantly diminished the proportion of minorities in
the population – what I call ‘Muslimisation.’
The last census before Pakistan’s
independence, in 1941, counted a healthy 20.5% of non-Muslims – Christians,
Sikhs, Parsis and Hindus – in what was then West Pakistan, the present
territory of Pakistan. By the time of the census in 1951, four years after
partition, this number drastically reduced to a mere 1.7% Hindus, 1.4%
Christians and a negligible figure relating to the Sikhs.
The process of ‘purifying’ the population
did not end there. Pakistan’s Christians and Parsis have gradually emigrated
from the country and the exodus continues to this day.
Ahmadis were deemed Muslim by the state
until 1974 when they were declared non-Muslims for legal purposes through a
constitutional amendment. Since then, they have been among the groups leaving
the country to seek refugee status in other countries.
Violence against Shias since the 1990s has
also forced them into the list of groups that are part of the exodus. The
United Nation’s refugee agency UNHCR reports an increase in asylum seekers
arriving from Pakistan to 1,489 in 2013, up from just 102 in 2012. Most are
Christians or members of the Ahmadiyya sect. Shias are increasingly growing in
this number now. Hazara Shias from Balochistan are risking life and limb on
risky routes on boats from Indonesia to Australia. Other Shias are applying for
asylum in the West as well.
During Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation drive, he
used laws, social norms and fear to create the most inhospitable conditions for
non-Sunni Muslim Pakistanis. He accelerated the anti-Ahmadi persecution and
began the anti-Shia drive.
Could the creation of Bangladesh may
also have played a part here? Should we not factor that in while interpreting
East Pakistan had a healthy percentage of
Hindus even after the partition. They were a vibrant and active political
minority. For many years after independence, the Hindus of East Pakistan had a
strong voice in keeping the culture of politics secular to avoid what was
happening in the western wing of the country.
The fear, suspicion and almost visceral
hatred of Indians and Hindus, of dictators like Ayub, set the tone against the
Bengalis and led to the separation of East and West Pakistan.
Several massacres of Hindus in East
Pakistan were reported, especially immediately after the Hazratbal incident in
1965, culminating in the tragic events of 1971. The loss of East Pakistan and
the independence of Bangladesh resulted in the loss of a sizeable chunk of our
Your book also asserts that Jinnah
wanted a modern and tolerant Pakistan. It is important to remind Pakistanis
about the original vision. Do you agree?
Absolutely. Jinnah’s speeches and comments
showed his absolute belief in the necessity of a secular government. His August
11, 1947 (speech) was a clear statement of the principles of the new state and
he declared that religion should have nothing to do with the business of state.
But my research and analysis bears out that the rot set in very early and an
effort was launched to roll back Jinnah’s vision.
Dissemination of Jinnah’s August 11, 1947
(speech) was limited by the government he headed as governor-general. The
Objectives Resolution (which is part of the current constitution of Pakistan),
moved by Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan on March 7, 1949, and
passed by the Constituent Assembly on March 12, 1949, declared Pakistan’s
objective to be the creation of an Islamic state.
The exclusivist religious tendencies
identified under Pakistan’s first prime minister were drastically different
from the principles of religious inclusion enunciated by Pakistan’s founder
Jinnah. The Objectives Resolution defined Pakistan’s national objective to be a
state governed “in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam as
set out in the holy Quran and Sunnah.”
There was a promise to the minorities too
that “adequate provision shall be made for the minorities to freely profess and
practice their religions and develop their cultures.” But the door had opened
for theologians to argue that even this could only be done within the confines
of established religious practice from earlier times.
Secular leaders such as Huseyn Shaheed
Suharwardy made prophetic warnings about the country having embarked on a
Suharwardy said at the time of the debate
over the Objectives Resolution, “A time will come when this state will destroy
itself… If Pakistan eliminates non-Muslims from its folds and forms a Muslim
state, Islam will be destroyed in Pakistan.” He obviously meant the tolerant
and live-and-let-live version of Islam.
The then leader of the opposition, Sris
Chandra Chattopadhyaya, a Hindu, said: “The state must respect all religions:
no smiling face for one and askance looks to the other. The state religion is a
dangerous principle. Previous instances are sufficient to warn us not to repeat
the blunder. We know people were burnt alive in the name of religion.”
What would be the key legislative
changes required to improve the status of minorities?
As originally conceived, Pakistan was, at
the very least, not intended to discriminate among various Muslim
denominations, and non-Muslim minorities too were assured of equal rights as
citizens. However, things have changed over the last several decades.
The use of Islamic slogans and cries of
“Islam in danger” during the 1946 elections preceding independence, and in
defining Pakistani nationhood immediately after independence, resulted in a
situation where liberal leaders slowly conceded space to the Islamists, most of
whom had no role in the struggle for Pakistan.
Therefore, what came after was not
surprising as I show in my book.
The Pakistani state must start legislating
repeal of religion-based laws that are difficult to implement any way and are
used by extremist vigilantes to legitimise their pogroms. There must be
revision of the blasphemy laws and a concerted campaign to punish those who
take the laws into their own hands and attack others on grounds of religion.
The repeal of the anti-Ahmadi legislation,
which prescribes punishments for Ahmadis engaging in any act that might make
them appear as Muslims, is another necessary step. Anyone who considers himself
of a certain faith should be able to live openly and, without fear, practice
that faith. People have the right to think that someone else’s faith is not
compatible with their faith, but it is not the state’s business to define
people’s religion for them.
Removing constitutional provisions that
state that only a Muslim can be president of Pakistan and the clause more
recently inserted in the 18th amendment to the constitution, which asserts that
only a Muslim can be the prime minister of Pakistan, would be other necessary
legal changes for Pakistan to conform to its obligations under the UN Universal
Declaration of Human Rights.
I know it is a difficult list to implement,
but we have to start talking about these changes today to be able to accomplish
them at some point in the future.
How can the abuse of blasphemy law be
Minorities are falsely charged or
victimised under blasphemy laws routinely. Sometimes people settle personal
scores through false blasphemy accusations.
The blasphemy law is a man-made law but its
supporters describe it as a divine law, which makes any discussion about it
impossible. Like other man-made laws, this law should be subject to debate and
reconsideration. Until the complete overhaul – or revision or repeal – of the
law is possible, there should be very strict penalties for the abuse of any
citizen in the name of blasphemy.
Your party was in power for five years,
why could it not make changes to the constitution and laws?
I wrote this book as a researcher, not as
spokesperson for a political party. If you are referring to the Pakistan
People’s Party, it is important to remember that its last term in office
comprised a coalition government. Partnering with other parties, including
religious party like Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, made major reform difficult.
We did pass the 18th amendment to the
constitution with consensus, which gave the provinces autonomy and access to
their own resources and monies and much more, but we could not change any laws
without the consensus of our coalition partners.
Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto recognised the need
for changing some of these laws and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari continues to
periodically emphasise the need for change. But I admit that we are nowhere
near rolling back curtailment of minorities’ rights under the banner of
Islamisation at this stage.
Do you see common themes with respect to
treatment of minorities in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh?
The persecution of religious minorities has
become a global issue today. The issue of religious freedom around the world
deserves urgent attention, which it has not been given in the past several
decades. All over the world, religious minorities are being threatened by
communal majoritarianism – the majority denying minorities the right to
practice their religion in absolute freedom.
In our region, we see organised and small,
but virulent members and groups of India’s Hindu majority, target the Muslim
and Christian minorities in particular. In Myanmar and Sri Lanka, you see the
majority Buddhists treat the Muslim minority, especially the Rohingya, and also
the Christian Sri Lankans, with violence. In Bangladesh, the Hindu community is
under attack from extremist Muslims as are secular bloggers and liberal
journalists. Christians are also under pressure.
However, no other country in our region has
the inbuilt constitutional bars on non-Muslim and minority Muslim citizens on
the scale that Pakistan has. It is a time of great unease throughout South
If you were back in power as a minister,
what would you do to curb extremism in Pakistan?
A mere minister could do very little at
this juncture. It would take a civilian leader of strength, courage and vision,
who also has the backing of our armed forces, to slowly change the laws and the
narratives in the society.
Even if we began today, I fear it would
take decades. But the longer we wait, the more fraught with danger the
situation becomes, not only for Pakistan’s religious minorities – including
Muslim minorities – but for the viability of the state as a whole.
Raza Rumi is consulting editor at The Friday Times in Pakistan. He
teaches at Ithaca College and Cornell Institute of Public Affairs.