Earlier this month, prime minister Nawaz Sharif gave a speech to the Hindu community in Karachi on the occasion of Holi. It was possibly one of the best speeches the prime minister has delivered in terms of content. Let us hope that his government follows it up with action. In a country where religious minorities, particularly the Hindus, are regularly targeted, his words came as a balm to the wounded and harassed community. He said all the right things to an applauding audience.
Where the PM cracked jokes and shared anecdotes, Sharif also said that as a leader (acknowledging jokingly that he wasn’t much of a leader), when he would meet his creator, he would not be asked what he did for Muslims of Pakistan but for all the people in his country. The point that he was trying to make was that his responsibility is to lead all Pakistanis, not those of one particular religion or sect. While in any other country, this statement would not be given much attention, in Pakistan, where successive governments have looked the other way when minorities are persecuted, this means a lot.
Sharif talked about a twisted version of Islam and spoke about how this had formed the basis of extremism in the country. While this is a somewhat simplistic approach, the PM rightly pointed out some people have been using religion to create divides. This includes his own party, but more on that some time else.
On that day, his best words were “It is not up to us to decide whether one will go to the heaven or hell, but to make this place a heaven on earth.” That’s a tall order indeed. So far this has not happened in the way it should. A Hindu marriage bill, which was passed unanimously by parliament, has been able to give a formal recognition to marriages in this community, but has left loopholes that can be exploited when it comes to forced conversions. One of the issues that have shaken the Hindu community are forced conversions. Sharif told his audience that Islam gives importance to every human being regardless of his caste, creed or religion and forcing anyone to convert his religion is a crime. Why not follow this by arresting those who abduct Hindu women and those who forcibly convert them. Set an example.
The PM also noted “it is our duty to protect the worship places of the minorities in Pakistan.” Hundreds of Hindu shrines and places of worship have been encroached upon. It will be very easy to have them vacated and handed back to the community.
The first time Sharif was PM, there was some progress on releasing the thousands of Hindus who are sold into bonded labour. It may be time to resume that effort.
Some say that the PM’s motives were political. His address to the Hindu community comes some months after Bilawal Bhutto Zardari attended Diwali celebrations and made similar statements. Possibly, the prime minister is trying to woo the Hindus in his bid to challenge the Peoples Party on its home ground. There is no harm in that.
The biggest wonder is why the PPP wins in Sindh given its poor governance and misrule. Rural areas of Sindh continue to be neglected as the rich landlords who are elected to parliament on PPP tickets get away with their corruption and strong-arm tactics. And yet the hapless people of the province continue to vote for the party given that they have little choice.
It is somewhat strange as to why the PML-N has not so far made any inroads into the province. It has failed to attract many good leaders to its camp and has instead relied on a loose agreement with the nationalist and religious parties for political muscle.
In that sense, the entry of the PML-N means a change in the game in Sindh. As we see things, the chances of re-election of prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 2018 seem bright. But for this, the PML-N has to make more inroads in other provinces. At this point it is seen as a Punjabi party. And so, to attract religious minorities to its side is a good idea. But words have to be matched with actions.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 20th, 2017.