Celebrating Christmas in Pakistan

Published: December 31, 2012
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The writer is a freelance journalist based between Karachi and London. She was formerly a staff writer at the New Statesman

The writer is a freelance journalist based between Karachi and London. She was formerly a staff writer at the New Statesman

Rimsha Masih’s family spent Christmas Day as they have spent the last four months: in hiding, afraid for their lives. In August, the young girl, who is aged between 10 and 14 and suffers from learning difficulties, was arrested and charged with blasphemy after a local cleric falsely accused her of desecrating pages of the Noorani Qaida. She was incarcerated in one of Pakistan’s toughest prisons for three weeks. Amid international outrage, she was eventually freed, but that does not mean she is safe. Those accused of blasphemy frequently die at the hands of angry mobs before they have even faced trial. Her house, in Mehrabad, a run-down Christian area on the outskirts of Islamabad, stands empty. Given the visceral fury that the mere allegation of blasphemy prompts, it should be no surprise that the Rimsha case inflamed local tensions. Many of her neighbours fled their homes in the ensuing crisis. For those who remained, it has been a bleak festive period. “Normally at Christmas we put up stars on our houses, but this year we will not be able to do this,” Amjad Shehzad, a local resident, told AFP.

About two per cent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million is Christian. In numerical terms, that translates to around five million people — half the population of Tunisia. This sizeable minority has long suffered economic, social and legal discrimination — and it is getting worse. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that 2012 was one of the worst years for Pakistan’s Christians in the country’s history, with churches burned, houses looted and many from the community charged with blasphemy.

According to the UK-based organisation Minority Rights Watch, Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for minorities. Ahmadis, Christians and Shias all face serious discrimination on a daily basis, ranging from difficulty in getting jobs to the heightened risk of terrorist violence. This is due to a combination of long-standing, culturally ingrained prejudices and the recent upsurge in extremism.

The discrimination against Christians is a hangover from the Hindu caste system which stretches back over a thousand years. During colonisation, the ‘untouchable’ or Dalit class were targets of missionary activity and many converted to Christianity. Despite the adoption of a new religion, the passage of time, and the formation of a country supposedly free of the caste system, the stigma remains. This translates into difficulty getting anything but the most menial jobs. Many are sweepers and cannot be promoted to other household positions because Muslim servants refuse to share cutlery or water with them. “They don’t let us move ahead,” Sujawal Masih, a sweeper, told me last year. “We get no chances. If they know you’re a Christian, they say: there’s no room here for you.”

The situation has not been helped by the increase in religious extremism and militancy. In Karachi alone, two churches were attacked in the space of 10 days in October. At least six have been vandalised in the city this year. In the aftermath of the riots against the anti-Islam YouTube clip, I noticed several churches in Karachi displaying signs outside their gates condemning the video and its insult to the Holy Prophet (pbuh). This was a concerted effort to avoid backlash for a crime that was not theirs in the first place.

Of course, the picture is not entirely bleak. In South Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold near the Afghanistan border, and probably the least likely location in the world for a Christmas congregation, 200 parishioners turned out to celebrate on December 25. This collective, public worship was possible because the church is situated inside an army base that was established in 2009. Although the church is only able to operate due to the heavily fortified conditions that protect it from the militant threat, it is a good example of the authorities actually taking action to protect minorities — something which is all too frequently lacking.

Across the board, there is a disturbing lack of concern for safeguarding minority rights and freedom of religion in Pakistan. Officially entrenched discrimination is rife, from the blasphemy law that is often used to persecute minorities, to the legal clause that requires Pakistani citizens to agree that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. In effect, this provides a legal mandate for bigotry. Politicians are too afraid to water down these laws due to widespread support for them. Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2011, after a dispute over sharing water, remains in prison. Conversely, Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer for taking up her cause, is still alive, hailed by many as a hero. The mob mentality prevails and minority communities are left to fend for themselves, keeping an ever lower profile. This was clearly evident in muted Christmas celebrations across the country. The day may have passed without major incident, but the fear remains. If a country is to be judged by how it treats it’s most vulnerable, Pakistan is not doing well.

There is no quick fix for this situation. The authorities make the right noises when places of worship are attacked, but do not follow through with convictions of those responsible or serious action to prevent further attacks. Education, community cohesion work, and legal reform are the only hope of changing attitudes, and all will take a serious investment of time and money. This does not appear to be forthcoming. An oft-repeated perspective is that given the dangers faced by the wider population, with mosques and Sufi shrines being attacked, one cannot expect minorities to be safe. This indicates an unacceptable level of complacency. The protection of minorities is not only a moral necessity, but something that was crucial to Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan. “We have many non-Muslims — Hindus, Christians and Parsis — but they are all Pakistanis,” he said, in a celebrated speech. With churches attacked every time there is an outpouring of anti-American sentiment, that message is clearly not being remembered.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 31st, 2012.

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Reader Comments (30)

  • Aryabhat
    Dec 31, 2012 - 1:46AM

    Very forthright article and Bravo to ET for publishing this.

    Irony is that SAME Pakistans line up for Visa of USA, Europe, Canada and Australia – largely Christian societies. Even within Pakistan, they would treat White foreigner as VIP while knowing that 99% of chaces are that this person is a Christian! What a hypocratic society

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  • Khurram Malik
    Dec 31, 2012 - 2:13AM

    The most shameful thing is that Punjab have the biggest community of Christians in Pakistan and in almost every city you could find a church and in cities of Gujrat, Gujranwala and Upper Punjab regions they are more than 5-10 percent in some regions but the ruling PMLN failed to wish our Christian compatriots a Happy Christmas as in Wahabi Islam it is forbidden to wish them Merry Christmas. On Shahbaz Sharif’s official Facebook page on 25th of December Mr Khadam e Alla did not mention a word for Christmas and he forgot millions of Christians of Punjab but he did remembered Nawaz’s Sharif birthday and congratulated his brother on 25th december.
    I hope especially in Punjab things will change and Shahbaz Sharif will shun his religiously biased attitude as he is utterly silent on issues of Shia Killings, Christians and Ahmedi rights and it is very shameful indeed.Recommend

  • anonymous
    Dec 31, 2012 - 2:40AM

    The whole country is dieing of suicide bombers, target killers, drone attacks, poverty, and you are worried about what?

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  • bari
    Dec 31, 2012 - 2:40AM

    The whole country is dieing of suicide bombers, target killers, drone attacks, poverty, and you are worried about what?

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  • Shaami Khokhar
    Dec 31, 2012 - 3:58AM

    @anynonymous You should be ashamed of your comment. You know why most people are getting killed and who are mostly getting killed.??. Intolerance is destroying our country and you are telling to close our eyes. She talked about Ahmedis, Shias and Christians who are our minorities and who are persecuted daily and for you it is not a matter of concern at all.? I belong from a Minority in Punjab Pakistan and i know how we live with fear on a daily basis in Pakistan but unfortunately for the majority Sunni and Especially Deobandis this is not the problem as your fundamentals include wiping out Minorities for your own agenda. You must be born in a minority family in Pakistan to really feel how it feels like and how we live on a daily basis in Pakistan as we love our country but you people dont consider us full Pakistanis and always call us Minorities and even we are not allowed to vote on normal seats as you have made special seats for us in Assemblies and even you removed us from decision making our country.Recommend

  • Jasmine
    Dec 31, 2012 - 4:02AM

    For God’s sake, please, let’s stop platitudes about “Jinnah’s vision”. I no longer live in Karachi or my country of birth and so can speak freely. If I had been alive in 1947 I would have taken the first available ferry boat from Karachi to Bombay. Our grandparents made a mistake. They and their children paid for it. I’m Christian and I felt the pain, but it must have been much worse for the one Hindu kid I knew in school. What message must learning about the Do-Qaumi-Nazaria have sent to that Hindu kid? “We (Pakistani Muslims) created a country for a nation (Muslims) because we (again, only Pakistani Muslims) couldn’t live with in a country with people like you (Hindus).” How cruel is that? How alienating is that? I remember the first time I understood I was officially a second-class citizen. Watching some parade on PTV and Benazir I proudly told my mother one day I’d be the Prime Minister of Pakistan. I remember the hurt, humiliation and disturbance it caused when she told me only Muslims could be President or Prime Minister. So enough of this “Jinnah’s vision”, please. The Qaid-e-Azam could not control the consequences of the actual act of making a country “for Muslims”, no matter how you try to spin it. One speech on 11 August 1947 is meaningless. And the Qaid made many speeches afterward, referring to Sharia and so on. He never uttered the word secularism. That’s what Pakistan has to become, one day. A secular state. Not sure it’ll happen in my lifetime, and I’m just 34. But we can hope. And that hope has to be grounded in universal principles of human rights and freedoms, not in the supposed “vision” of a historical figure who said many inconsistent and contradictory things to different people and at different times.

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  • upkamath aka prashanth
    Dec 31, 2012 - 6:00AM

    “2012 was one of the worst years for Pakistan’s Christians in the country’s history”

    2012>2013>2014>2015 …
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  • F
    Dec 31, 2012 - 9:30AM

    Jinnahs vision – isn’t that the real problem to begin with?!

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  • Dec 31, 2012 - 10:39AM

    Should have mentioned Shahbaz Bhatti as well, who was assassinated soon after Salman Taseer, as he too bravely spoke out against the abusive and discriminatory use of the blasphemy laws.

    What’s further tragic about his murder is that he had requested extra protection from his own party/govt after known threats by extremists and the previous evidenced killing of Salman Taseer. No such luck. I would have to say the authorities are partially culpable for absolutely failing to protect even a high profile minority Christian minister that he was out of fear/apathy/negligence etc.

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  • Ubaid
    Dec 31, 2012 - 11:46AM

    sorry to say but its not only the minorities who are being killed, there is a large amount of Muslims being killed in suicide blasts and target killings. Mosques are being targeted. Muslims also fear to go to the mosques or attend funerals. This situation is in general, applicable to all religions. It’s not fair to single out minorities. All Pakistanis are suffering. By singling out minorities only the country’s name gets defamed ( which already is pretty much bad ). Plz don’t do that.

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  • Vivek
    Dec 31, 2012 - 12:34PM

    @Jasmine

    Could not have said it better. Bravo!!

    If this jinnah was secular, as repeated ad nauseaum, then why did we have the partition in the first place? His speech delivered in Lahore, on March 22, 1940 unambiguously has mentioned that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together. It makes me laugh, that in article after article, pakistani writers search for the ONE FIG LEAF(the secular speech given by jinnah) to portray pakistan as a secular place, when it is not.

    Part of the speech given below:

    “ The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, litterateurs. They neither intermarry nor interdine together and, indeed, they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built for the government of such a state”.

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  • J T
    Dec 31, 2012 - 1:10PM

    @Ubaid:
    Do you understand the concept of proportionality? How many Sunnis are getting killed or being discriminated against as a proportion of their overall numbers in Pakistan as opposed to the numbers of minorities treated similarly as a proportion to their respective numbers. An even more important question is this: are the sunnis experiencing violence or terrorism solely because of their belief in sunni islam? The minority persecution, on the contrary, is invariably predicated on the fact that their beliefs are different from the majority population. So the problems the majority sunni population are not exactly comparable to what the minorities face. But yeah what you say may indeed become true since extremism by its nature tends to be competitive and increasingly puritanical.

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  • Bashdo
    Dec 31, 2012 - 2:06PM

    @Ubaid Dear Brother Ubaid I belong from so called minority of Pakistan Punjab and you have to be born in a minority to understand what our feelings are and you could not understand our feelings at all. We love Pakistan and we want to become an Active member of this society but Pakistani Constitution, Pakistani textbooks limit our existence and shun our sense of belonging to Pakistan in a forceful manner and even In Punjab textbooks it is written that we can never be friends of Muslims and we are dirty people and Conspiracy Theorists and that is very very disheartening for us. All we want that we would be recognized as Pakistanis and we will be given right to vote like Pakistani Americans, Pakistani Europeans and Indian Muslims have as in Pakistan Non Muslims have a spearate Electorate and even We cannot apply on general seats and it is written in Constitution that Non Muslim have no right to become a President and Prime Minister and that is a discrimination and nothing else. In Punjab Most of the Christians unfortunately have dark Complexion than others and people call us “Chooras” and “Mashis” in a derogatory manner and even they dont share their utensils with us and most of us do menial work as People have rejected us to make us an Active member of the society in every manner.Recommend

  • Raza Khan
    Dec 31, 2012 - 2:24PM

    High time we face the real ugly facts confronting the country instead of putting them under the carpet! We are living in Global Village. We are HATED around the world for our deeds.

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  • Sultan
    Dec 31, 2012 - 4:57PM

    @Vivek:

    strong textTo yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built for the government of such a state”strong text

    Read it again and ponder the word “numerical minority” therein lies the key to why Jinnah, after Congress’s continued intrasigence and bad faith, opted for the tow state solution.

    Words have meanings to only those who chose to read and understand them, not gloss over in a fit of zealotry!

    Jinnah was the greatest leader and politician the sub continent produced–what we have done to his gift is our problem, not Jinnahs!

    Show some respect, if you were taught any.

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  • Dec 31, 2012 - 5:07PM

    Agree, the most humbling discrimination is landing a job for a Christian or any other minority becuase there is job saturation in the market here.There are several [Christian] women working with us – albeit in small positions, and this is where we agree with the op-ed writer.
    One lady came to me to request a placement for her husband saying she couldn’t meet expenses with the payment she receives for domestic chores, and would it be possible to get her husband a job in the capital Development Authority Islamabad.
    We could not even try;because normally the CDA would prefer some one with PPP credential, and one recommended [for the job] by a PPP official/Minister or some one with PPP connection. But, tut, tutu, every one in the Pakistani society is not as bigoted as the writer would suggest.There are also some swallows who do not make the kind of warped summer the writer accuses us of. We get on fine with those who work with us; we.take tea and some times eat together. And they really, give their best. We placate them during Xmas and Easter and they share our happiness during Eid

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  • ahmed41
    Dec 31, 2012 - 6:03PM

    What on earth is so wrong about any one being a Christian or dark skinned or doing a humble job ?

    All are citizens.

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  • Raj
    Dec 31, 2012 - 6:48PM

    “The discrimination against Christians is a hangover from the Hindu caste system which stretches back over a thousand years.” : Hmmm.

    1. But Pakistan was supposed to be purified of all such Hindu and infidel ailments. What changed?

    2. And how can one get a “hangover” in the rather dry Republic Of The Pure? Perhaps you meant “leftover?”

    3. Please stop using the One Jinnah Speech That Everyone Loves To Quote. It is a bit tired by now. Also, it will be quite interesting to see the response that Pakistan will accord to Mr. Jinnah if he landed in Karachi today with his baggage to claim his Pakistani heritage and citizenship.

    Cheers. And Happy New Year.Recommend

  • Zalim singh
    Dec 31, 2012 - 8:07PM

    @ Raj

    excellent rebuttal. This is a very prejudiced article from samira. She holds the “Hindu” genes of Pakistanis for the atrocities being committed on Christians.

    What reason she has for the atrocities committed on Christians in Egypt. Muslims are intolerant by nature. It shows in the behaviour of Pakistanis.

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  • anonymous
    Dec 31, 2012 - 8:34PM

    @Shaami Khokhar:
    why are you blaming me for? if you’re thinking that you are minority by faith and religion than your an idiot…lets just say i am telling about the bigger problems facing Pakistan right now! and the author seems to fail pointing those things out. We muslims, christians, hindus living in this country are all in danger and have no rule of law. So consider that not as a minority on faith but as whole nation of human beings.

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  • John the Baptist
    Dec 31, 2012 - 9:02PM

    @Zalim singh:

    Really, and what gene is responsible for atrocities committed against Christians in India by Hindu fanatics, Mulaim Singh?

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  • Indian Catholic
    Dec 31, 2012 - 10:24PM

    As Pakistan becomes purer day by day, we in India take pride in being a nation of “mud-bloods”. We are already diverse and we would love to be the most diverse nation on earth, even more than the US of A.
    .
    I am a Christian with an unbroken lineage in Christianity traced back to 2,000 years converted by St. Thomas the Apostle (Please read about the Mar Thomas in Kerala). We are the oldest Church outside of Asia Minor. Owing to the fact hat Christians never faced persecution over 2 millennium in India, we stayed put and didn’t do anything stupid 65 odd years ago.
    .
    I am now living in a BJP ruled state and I do not face any problems whatsoever. If anything, the ruling government is cognizant of our sensitivities but No, we do not get any special entitlements for being a minority. Nor do we throw stones when we are angry.
    .
    For those in Pakistan who think that Hinduism is a religion, I instead think that it is a way of life. Indians, whatever religion they belong to, can also be considered as Hindus because we believe in pretty much the same thing and we grow up with the same culture. We believe in doing our duty, being responsible for one’s actions, etc. If you saw me in the ISKCON temple in Flushing, NY, you would think I was a Hindu because like Jews, Hinduism has been a religion one was born into and resticted to a region.
    .
    I applaud the author, but I wonder how many in Pakistan would relate to her. And how many fewer still would be spurred into action.
    .
    PS: GP65: Where are you? I hope you are well.

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  • Iqbal
    Dec 31, 2012 - 11:51PM

    @John the Baptist:
    As a fellow muslim I want you to think rationally and stop throwing ridiculous comments about others. Remember two wrongs don’t make a right.
    To best judge hindus and muslims is to compare them in a society where neither are in majority. In UK there are statistics available to compare the achievements of both and this article seals how muslims are compared with hindus:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/feb/20/race.immigrationpolicy
    When you compare crime we muslims are the worst of the lot. This article from UK’s parliament confirms that muslim population in prisons is 12.5% (and rising) compared to general population of muslims in UK of 3.0%. For hindus the prison population is 0.5% whereas they are 1.0% generally.
    http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn04334.pdf

    The above facts speak for themselves and there is no shame in confessing that hindus have become more successful then us except perhaps in terrorism.

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  • a_writer
    Jan 1, 2013 - 3:31AM

    @Jonaid Iqbal:

    “We placate them during Xmas and Easter and they share our happiness during Eid” – last sentence in your comment.

    To be absolutely sure, I looked up the exact meaning of ‘placate’ –

    Placate as a verb : “Make (someone) less angry or hostile”

    Placate synonyms are : “appease – pacify – soothe – propitiate – mollify”

    You see the difference? The minorities get to share in your ‘happiness’ during Eid and the majority Muslims ‘placates’ the minority Christians during their most significant religious day. Doesn’t sound much like a tolerant society , does it?
    You have reiterated the main thrust of the article; though your good intentions does come through in your comment.

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  • socko
    Jan 1, 2013 - 7:18AM

    @Bashdo

    “All we want that we would be
    recognized as Pakistanis and we will
    be given right to vote like
    Pakistani Americans, Pakistani
    Europeans and Indian Muslims have as
    in Pakistan Non Muslims have a
    spearate Electorate and even We cannot
    apply on general seats

    I am shocked, confused, flabbergasted!?!?!? And DO you really mean that? :-(

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  • socko
    Jan 1, 2013 - 7:28AM

    @Sultan … Oh really, and dd he even for a moment think about the muslims who will be left behind in India and how they will be treated by Hindus? He obviously may have thought who cares? He just used the word Islam and Muslims… If 100 mn Muslims against 300 mn Hindus were a numerical minority, how would you like to call those poor muslims left behind, who did not have any resources to migrate to Pakistan, whose nubmers were 26 Mn who were let.. If those guys really cared for Muslims, they would not have done that.. I dont want to bring the topic of Hindus who were in North west India, now pakistan, who one fine day were told that they were not needed… They had to leave behind the land, house, business, and all their emotional and physical belongings and migrate to No Mans land where they did not know anybody?

    If you are true muslim and beliieve in Quran, then you would justify whatever is happening to pakistani people, i mean who still carry around the ideology of separate nation. You can never pay back the pain of all Musims left behind, who cursed muslims who migrated, because of whose ideology, they were outsider in their own land. Also, you got all the curse of some 15 million hindus & sikhs who had to leave jsut because you guys wanted a separate country, for no reason.

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  • socko
    Jan 1, 2013 - 7:47AM

    @Iqbal
    All the statistics you provided may be true but that in does not take away the fact that there are many Muslims (though a niche segment) who do prosper & sometimes do better than other communities.. They seem to have a wider vision of life, have compassion towards humanity, and yes also sincere to their religion…
    I have many Muslim friends and I love visiting his house, meeting his parents, and they are no different from other communities if not better. If people who call themselves Muslims, truly believe in God, they should not be able to discriminate others. If they do, then I would say they pose as Muslims, and obsessed with the religion. The problem is in today’s Islam, we have had lot of corruption in during the last several centuries, and it is spreading like cancer… If only other Muslims choose to look at the wider picture and realize whats happening?

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  • Vivek
    Jan 1, 2013 - 9:11AM

    @sultan

    So, I am quoting jinnah’s speech, which reeks of zealotry, and I am a zealot?? Cool. Actually wait, on second thought, I agree that he is the greatest leader of the sub continent. Why is that? Since, you yourself have mentioned that the pakistani people have brought your nation to the current state, jinnah being the great leader that he is, had the foresight to see that, and consequently the fate of unified India. Hence he did us a big favor by seeking partition. We, the Indians, have to thank him for that.

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  • Vivek
    Jan 1, 2013 - 11:32AM

    @socko,

    As of today, the non muslims, are still waiting for the “TRUE” version of Islam, meaning an uncorrupted one. Please let the rest of humanity know when the “PURE” version is deciphered/invented/discovered/contextualized/interpreted….We are waiting with bated breath for our liberation with this version. Thank You.

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  • Sultan
    Jan 2, 2013 - 9:47PM

    Vivek:

    Air your own cupboard first, it is reeking of centuries old hatred, especially against women, Mr. Mahabharta! You follow one of the most regressive religious doctrines on this planet and can fool no one. The poor Damini has been an eye opener against your “shining” mantra. If you read the history of the sub continent, you will know that it was the Moghuls who created a unified country and also gave it some civilization, which seems to be evaporating quite rapidly!

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