Friday 14 December 2012

Who will protect Pakistan's minorities?

By Sajjad Ashraf, Published The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2012

IN TROUBLED Pakistan, where scores often die in targeted killings, communal violence and gang warfare, the last few weeks have been no less difficult for its minority communities.

The century-old Shri Ram Pir Mandir, a Hindu temple, and adjoining houses were razed to the ground by a private builder in Karachi, assisted by the local authorities and despite a court order protecting the site. Hapless families could only protest against the might of the state, used only to help the powerful.

Two days later, in the early hours of the morning, more than 100 Ahmadi graves were desecrated. About 12 masked men forced their way into the Lahore graveyard of the Muslim minority sect that was declared non-Muslim in 1974. The vandals from extremist religious outfits claimed that the Ahmadis, being "infidels", should not bear Islamic inscriptions on their graves.

After Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophet) Lawyers Forum filed a petition seeking the inscriptions' removal, the local police reportedly supported the move.

As one English daily put it: "Stuck in circumstances where the state cannot protect the people from terrorist threats when they are alive, the fact that the dead could not be protected is not shocking."

During the past year, several cases of teenage Hindu girls forcibly converted and married to Muslim boys have been reported in Sindh province. The families alleged that none of the girls returned to their homes for fear of retribution when the Supreme Court took suo moto (on its own accord) notice. A handicapped teenage Christian girl, acquitted some months ago on blasphemy charges, remains in hiding with her family fearing for her life.

For over a year, Sunni gunmen have targeted the Hazara Shi'ite community in Baluchistan, killing at least 100. The bloodshed is part of the larger sectarian violence in Pakistan, with over 400 Shi'ites murdered this year. Shi'ites accuse the officially banned Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi for most of the killings. Released from jail last year amid rose petals showers, the group's leader lives openly in southern Punjab and continues to denounce Shi'ites as the "greatest infidels on earth".

At independence in 1947, minorities constituted 27 per cent of Pakistan but today make up only 4 per cent.

Most Hindus emigrated to India, many still do and others converted. Similarly, Christians continue to emigrate while those who cannot do so live in a state of fear and deprivation.

Minorities expect little protection from the state. The mystery for them is not the identity of their attackers. It is answering why the Pakistani state cannot - or will not - protect them.

Sixty-five years after independence, the debate still rages over what Mr Muhammad Ali Jinnah's vision was for Pakistan. The liberals blame his successors for making Pakistan into a religiously bigoted, narrow-minded state.

Many analysts point to the breakdown of the state structure or the possibility of sympathisers for the extremists within the security apparatus. Given the Islamist direction Pakistan has taken, this sympathy is natural. The consequences are hard to miss.

Listen to the speeches of military rulers Ayub and Yahya Khan at the start of the 1965 and 1971 wars with India, which suggest Pakistanis bear arms in the name of Islam against non-believers.

A deeper introspection and a little sense of history suggest that states that came into existence as a result of perceived religious discrimination inevitably suffer paranoia and insularity. Their societies become polarised societies, turning them to the extreme right.

Devoid of credible leadership, Pakistani rulers found religion was the only anchor to maintain their hold over society thus radicalising it further.

Military rulers play on Islamic rhetoric rather than motivating and galvanising the nation based on shared values, education and economic development. Extremism promoted by General Ziaul Haq proved particularly damaging for Pakistan.

The unabated killings and persecution of religious minorities and smaller sects of Islam raise wider questions about Pakistan's regressive direction and its consequences. Ironically, much of Pakistan appears oblivious or has given in to the cancerous sectarianism that is consuming a society that seemed tolerant until the 1970s. The audacity of the killers and state inaction are even more worrying.

Sacrificing principles for expediency, Pakistan's ruling coterie is too corrupt, tainted and unwilling to make hard choices. A new set of rulers is necessary.

Pakistan needs to establish rule of law without fear or favour, value human life, nab the corrupt, focus on education and economic revival, and provide essential services to the less privileged. Failure to do so will be destabilising for the whole region.

The writer is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, and was Pakistan's High Commissioner to Singapore from 2004 to 2008.

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