Last year, I was invited to a Christmas programme by the Lahore College of Theology. At that superb programme, the chief guest was our present prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif. While it was heart-warming that Mr Sharif stayed for the full three hours of the event (something I had hardly ever seen a VIP do), he also made some interesting comments. Among other things, Nawaz said that he unreservedly supported full rights and privileges for minorities in Pakistan, and in the end said: “Just as I made the first non-Muslim finance minister in Punjab, soon I will surprise you again”. I must admit, at that time, I simply termed it a politician playing to the crowd and came back home happy that, at least, he was there. That comment, however, came alive just a few days back when as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif appointed Mr Kamran Michael as the federal minister for ports and shipping — the first time in the recent history of democratic Pakistan that a minority member has been appointed to a substantial ministry.
The last time a minority member was appointed to anything, except the minorities’ portfolio, was during the three-year dictatorial regime of General (ret) Pervez Musharraf when he appointed, in succession, Mr Derek Cyprian and Col (retd) SK Tressler, as minister of culture, sports, tourism and youth affairs, in addition to minorities. Interestingly, before that, it was again Nawaz Sharif, who had appointed a minority member as narcotics minister in his first tenure of government between 1990-93. Before that, Raja Tridev Roy held the additional portfolio of tourism with minorities, between 1973-74, in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s first tenure and earlier Justice (retd) AR Cornelius had been the law minister under Yahya Khan’s martial law regime. Surprisingly, no minority member featured during the decade-long rule of General Ayub Khan, even though, he is usually lauded as the most forward-looking and “secular”-minded ruler in Pakistan (side note: We have yet to understand the Ayub era; the propaganda which portrayed him as the best thing for Pakistan at that time is slowly being discredited with more research on the period).
In the first decade of Pakistan’s existence, minorities, which at that time were more in number due to East Pakistan being about 25 per cent Hindu, fared a little better in the cabinet. While they were not part of the cabinet of Sir Khawaja Nazimuddin and a few others, Akshay Kumar Das managed to become minister of state in both the governments of Chaudhry Mohammad Ali and HS Suhrawardy, Basanta Kumar Das became cabinet minister for labour and education in Sir Feroz Khan Noon’s administration, while Kamini Kumar Datta was cabinet minister for law and health during the government of Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, and law, health and education minister during the tenure of Sir Feroz Khan Noon. And, we all know that the father of the nation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, appointed Jogendra Nath Mandal as the first law minister of Pakistan, after he had been the first president of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, a position which Jinnah later held himself.
The point in narrating all this information is to show that minorities have always been part and parcel of the fabric of Pakistan and that at the inception of the country, their role, contribution and importance was rather more than what is given to them today. Just imagine, would anyone accept a Hindu as the speaker of the National Assembly or the education minister, or a Christian as the law minister? It is here that I want to commend Nawaz Sharif for breaking this important barrier. By appointing a non-Muslim to an important ministry, he has clearly shown his resolve to put his trust in the minister, regardless of religion and has given confidence to other non-Muslims that they, too, can equally participate in the development of the country despite being non-Muslim.
At that Christmas function, Mr Sharif also said that he hoped that the word “minority” is deleted from our vocabulary. He said that we should all just be “Pakistanis” and be referred to as such, without any distinction by the state. Now that he is in power, I hope and pray that he breaks these barriers and creates an atmosphere (legally and socially), where all Pakistanis can contribute to the welfare of their country on merit and without differentiation on the basis of religion.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 11th, 2013.