Since very old times, the region that now constitutes Pakistan has been pluralistic. Multiple faiths, creeds, religions, ethnicities, castes and tribes have lived together, more or less, in peace and harmony but never free from tension or the possibility of an eruption of conflict. Besides historical heritage, there are other layers like culture, language, social group solidarity and, more than anything else, individual and group interests that keep a pluralistic society together. Pakistani pluralism, since the inception of the country, has been under stress and continues to be so for several reasons.
Pakistan as a common homeland of all faiths would have been a far better place to live for citizens than the popular idea of Muslim Pakistan at the time of Partition from the British Indian Empire in 1947. The momentous events that led to the Partition gave a deathblow to religious pluralism in many parts of Pakistan, mainly in Punjab. It is beside the point to go into explanations of communalism, violence and the migration that took place at that traumatic time. The historical continuity of thousands of years broke down in a matter of months. No longer were they members of a single human community with common bonds of culture, language and city, town and locality; instead, they were alien to one another and members of new nations.
The forced migration of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan was violent, arbitrary, mostly driven by greed for reasons of grabbing property and business. But religious difference became an identity-marker of a new nation and Pakistan fired the fanaticism and bigotry. But nor were these sentiments lacking among the Hindu and Sikh fanatics on the other side of a virtual border, which was still to be drawn and demarcated. While India, being large and diverse, has succeeded in maintaining its diversity and pluralism, outbursts of violence against minorities by majority communities are common there, too. However, its democracy has given a voice to its minorities that was needed to seek balance and protection through the ballot box and law. With the thousands of problems that India faces today, its diversity and pluralism, though mind-boggling, are in good health.
I wish I could say the same about Pakistan. Religious minorities in our country have very few safeguards. Actually, they are not protected enough and find themselves insecure. Their sense of insecurity is not unfounded. They are attacked, humiliated and framed under laws that have religious imprints. The Sikhs that had a dominant presence in Punjab are no longer visible, except in limited places clustered around gurdwaras. It is only in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and, to some degree, in Sindh that they are visible. Sadly, Punjab, which is now devoid of Sikhs, contains the greatest number of their holiest shrines.
Ahmadis, a sect that claimed to be Muslims, were declared non-Muslims by a democratically and popularly elected government in 1974. The ruling followed regular burning of their houses and since then, the killing of their members has never stopped. Christians, as descendants of lower castes, have sought peace in social and economic marginality and suffer some of the worst discrimination in our country.
Hindus are so few in Punjab, that I have personally never met one in this part of the country. Sindh and Balochistan have remained pluralistic even during the worst of our times but even there, minorities do not feel secure and have started migrating to India and other countries. There is a similar trend in K-P. Images of ‘shining’ India and ‘failing’ Pakistan are also serving as a factor in the Hindu migration across the border which is slow but occurs at a steady pace.
Lesson: stressing religious and ethnic diversity will produce intolerance and create more points of conflict. The solution is in making equal citizenship under one law, religious freedom and protection for all minorities.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2012.