By Imtiaz Gul
The News, August 25, 2014
In recent months Pakistan has witnessed an unusual surge in violence against religious minorities who have faced violence across the country. Not only have Pakistani Christians, Ahmadis, Sikhs, and Hindus suffered at the hands of unknown extremist groups but the Shia community, too, has borne the brunt of extremism and intolerance.
Recent cases include the killing of two Hindu brothers in Umerkot, Sindh on August 6, 2014. On the same day a young Sikh trader, who had fled fighting in Fata, was gunned down in Peshawar. Earlier on July 26, 2014, an Ahmadi man was poisoned and shot dead in Gojra in Toba Tek Singh near Lahore, while a few days before that, another Ahmadi was murdered in Nawabshah. In yet another brazen attack on a minority community, two Ahmadi girls, one woman and an unborn baby were burned on July 27 in Gujranwala, Punjab – and the list keeps getting longer.
Strangely, the July 27 incident in Gujranwala targeting Ahmadis drew no reaction from Shahbaz Sharif, the Punjab chief minister.
The exponential rise in the persecution of religious minorities calls into question Article 25 of the federal constitution which holds all citizens equal before the law and entitles them the right to equal citizenry.
The surge in violence against and the increasing discrimination of minorities also reminds us of a speech that the Quaid-e-Azam gave at the Strachey Hall of the Aligarh University on February 5, 1938.
“What the Muslim League has done is to set you free from the reactionary elements of Muslims and to create the opinion that those who play their selfish games are traitors. It has certainly freed you from that undesirable element of maulvis and maulanas (as well as (the clutches of the British government, the Congress, the reactionaries and so-called Muslims).”
Although Pakistan has been observing August 11 as a national ‘Minorities Day’ since 2011, these celebrations do not reflect what happens to most religious minorities, away from the glittering political power houses in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.
Ironically, the current alarming incidence of violence against religious minorities also reminds one of the famous speech by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the nation, in which he promised the freedom of worship and equality without discrimination to religious minorities residing in Pakistan. His words were: “You are free; free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
All minorities feel that the state has not only failed to protect them but continues to tolerate and condone faith-based violence in the country – mostly hiding behind political expedience. The reluctance of CM Shahbaz Sharif in condemning the recent killings or the silence of most politicians over the murder of former governor of the Punjab province in January 2011, also testifies the usual mainstream political disinclination to condemn attacks on minorities.
Ashok Chand, vice chairman of the All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement (APHRM), says that in addition to the afore-mentioned threats, religious minorities also continue to be restricted from performing their religious duties. Hindu minorities’ representatives claim that their women are easy targets for rape, conversions and forced marriages. Moreover, any accusation of blasphemy, which is punishable by death, is easy to drive a Hindu or a member of any other religious minority away from home.
The alarming increase in the number of horrific attacks against minorities in Pakistan raises concerns abroad too; Pakistan being a party to various UN treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) it ratified in 2010, is obliged under the Article 27 of ICCPR to ensure the freedom to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities living in Pakistan to profess and practice their religion, use their language and enjoy their culture.
More importantly, Articles 20, 21 and 22 of the Pakistani constitution also guarantee every citizen the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion and to manage religious institutions. Despite these constitutional guarantees, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) notes that the religious freedom environment for Christians, Shias, Sikhs, Ahmadis and Hindus has severely deteriorated over the last 18 months. The Minority Rights Group International has, for example, ranked Pakistan as the world’s top country in terms of religious persecution.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies