It is only a strip on the side but a visible one against the much larger green part of the flag. But it is almost invisible in our cities. In terms of percentages, the Muslim majority is nearly 96.28 per cent, while in the rest of the 3.72 per cent, we have 1.59 per cent Christians; 1.85 caste Hindus and 0.33 scheduled castes; 0.35 Ahmadis;0.01 Sikhs and 0.03 others, which includes Parsis, Bahais and others. But it is not my or other scholars’ papers which will tell you just what life is like for the minorities in Pakistan. So, you need not read my article entitled “Pakistan’s policies and practices towards the religious minorities” published in South Asian History and Culture (3:2: 302-315) in 2012. Instead, please read A White Trail by Haroon Khalid, published by Westland Ltd in 2013. It is a first person narrative. The author visits the religious minorities and talks to them. He describes their lives — the festivals, the traumas, the troubles and the joys — and in the end, you understand what it is like to be a member of a minority in Pakistan better than you would after reading boring, fact-filled articles by writers like myself. This is ethnography at its best and it does present you the inner lives; the consciousness of the minorities in intimate detail.
Haroon begins with the traumatic scene of a small boy running into the house of a Hindu woman in Multan to tell her that an armed mob, enraged by the demolition of the Babri Mosque in India, is coming to kill her family. They run helter-skelter for dear life though they had nothing to do with the demolition of the mosque — indeed, they had never heard of it till that fateful day. But such is the fate of minorities on both sides of the border and one can imagine Muslim families waiting with bated breaths as mobs approached to hunt them out in the carnage in Gujarat. And Sikh families in a similar predicament after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in Delhi. But then, with artistic dexterity, Haroon plants us right in the middle of flaming colours, the celebrations of Diwali and Holi by the same woman. The good news is that till 2010, these were not celebrated openly but now the author witnesses and describes the celebrations in Multan. These are not attended by most Muslims but, at the personal level, there are attempts by tolerant people to share one another’s celebrations. Most of us do not know the immense cultural wealth of Pakistan till we have read about it or seen it personally. There are the celebrations of the Navratri (nine nights) in Bahawalnagar in which nine virgin girls become incarnations of Durga Mata and are treated like goddesses during that period. There are other events too but the long shadow of officiallyinspired intolerance haunts them. When the news of a murder to avenge an imagined blasphemy comes to the minorities, they cringe, waiting for the frenzied mobs to descend upon them like the wolf on the fold.
But life goes on and the author moves to the Christian community. For the Christians, discrimination comes in many forms, one of them so appalling that it may not be credible to some of us. Did you know, for instance, that there are restaurants which do not serve Christians in the same utensils as Muslims? I did not know that so, it is never too late to learn. But I am sure you do know that many Christians have been accused of blasphemy only on personal or property disputes or small misunderstandings. Bishop John Joseph shot himself dead leaving a note behind saying that he had committed suicide to protest against the framing of blasphemy charges against one Ayub Masih, who had been falsely accused because of a property dispute. The bishop thought this would change the law so that the innocent are not accused wrongly but our people have been made so hysterical about it that nothing did happen; nothing could happen.
The book introduces us to the depleted Parsi community of Lahore, which has no priest anymore, so if they want a traditional marriage, they have to go to Karachi or fly the priest to the city. Death is even more problematic since Parsis offer their dead bodies as charity to birds and animals, but here in Lahore, the facility does not exist, forcing them to bury the dead. The Sikh community seems to be the one which the state protects more than all others. The state has patronised them since the Khalistan movement against Indian rule in the 1980s. The celebrations of Guru Nanak’s birthday and Vaisakh are highly interesting in this section also. But even here, there is the inevitable undertone of discrimination by the majority (in utensils of all things!) and the Damocles sword of laws, which may be abused and fanatics who kill outside the law. There are also snippets of the Bahais and the Ahmadis. The latter community opted for Pakistan. Are any further comments needed?
So, how is it different in India for Muslims? This is not a question which Haroon has tackled but let me do so because it is so relevant. First, there are far more Muslims in India and some are in high posts compared with minority people in Pakistan. Secondly, the law in India is not discriminatory against Muslims, while in Pakistan, some discrimination is built into the law itself. Thirdly, there is no law which the public is so emotional about that it is abused as often as our blasphemy laws are. And, lastly, the liberal-humanist lobby and the courts are not cowed down as much in matters of religion as ours are now. So, in short, our minorities are worse off than the Muslims of India at present. But then there is the RSS and the possibility of one of their leaders capturing power. With extremism rising, the state of affairs is not better in Pakistan either. So, will the white part of our flag survive? With honour?
Published in The Express Tribune, December 9th, 2013.