Over the past couple of days there has been a lot of media reporting on the resolution passed by the National Assembly of Pakistan, tabled by Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani. This has been reported as far and wide as the Huffington Post and Time. While the resolution is a good effort, in reality nothing has changed in Pakistan. Let me explain why.
First, this is simply a resolution and not an act of parliament. Hence, it is not legally binding on anyone. It is just a statement of intent — good intent, but that is about it.
Secondly, and most importantly, it seems that in the excitement over this ‘dramatic’ change, no one has actually read the resolution itself. The resolution as tabled by Dr Vankwani on March 15, 2016 read: ‘This House is of the opinion that the Government should take steps to declare Holi, Dewali and Easter as closed holidays for minorities.’ Every single commentator ignored the part where it said ‘for minorities’ only. So this resolution never even asked for these festivals to be declared national (for all) holidays. It merely opined that the minorities should be given these holidays.
Thirdly, and ironically, these holidays already exist for minorities, so the resolution itself was redundant and there was no point in passing it in any case. Every year the Interior Ministry of the Government of Pakistan publishes a list of ‘gazetted holidays’ which includes public as well as optional holidays. The public holidays are for everyone while the optional list includes about twenty holidays which can be availed by minorities and different Muslim denominations. The notification further says that minorities can avail up to three optional holidays a year, which is exactly the same number this resolution was calling for. While the optional list is primarily for government offices, most private sector employers also follow it and therefore, there was always provision for such holidays for minorities. In fact, the current optional list allows the minorities a wide range of dates on which these three holidays can be taken, hence giving them more room to manoeuvre from year to year.
With the issue of the redundant resolution cleared, let me make one further point. This is not the ‘first’ time Pakistan had approved holidays for the minorities. In the first decade after independence, Pakistan did observe religious days of Hindus and Christians as national public holidays. For example in 1955, Good Friday, Janamashtami and Dussehra were national holidays, while Durga Puja and Sri Panchami were holidays in East Pakistan only. By 1958, only Good Friday and Dussehra had survived, to be dropped completely by the ‘revolutionary’ government of General Ayub Khan which removed all non-Muslim holidays (and some Muslim ones too) from the official calendar. Since then, they have been on the optional holidays list, to be availed by non-Muslims only according to significance, etc.
Since the resolution has now garnered enough good press — even in India — perhaps it is time for the Government of Pakistan to seriously think about making at least one or two of them national public holidays. One each from Christianity and Hinduism will give a positive signal to the world, as well as to other Pakistanis, that Pakistan respects and celebrates the festivals of all of its citizens, not just Muslims. This year has bided well for Pakistan generally; so let us take this additional step in realising the dream of our Quaid and treat all our citizens equally.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2016.