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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 23, June 3, 2023

An Insightful Peep into Pakistan’s Minorities | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 2 June 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities

by Haroon Khalid

Vintage/Penguin Random House
Pages: xxi + 334; Price: Rs 399 (PP)
ISBN: 9780143460770

How do religious minorities cope up in overwhelmingly Islamic Pakistan? Pakistan is not just a country founded by and for Muslims but it has taken great pains to educate entire generations to look down upon the "other" (read minorities), particularly since General Zia ul-Haq embraced Islamization to gain legitimacy. Naturally, the minorities, more so Hindus and Ahmadiyyas, lead a very tough life.

Although Mohammed Ali Jinnah wanted minorities to be equal partners in the country that he founded in 1947, developments after his death took it on a different and then completely hardline path. Over time, Pakistan came to acquire an exclusivist identity concretized through different state institutions, education, media, bureaucracy, law, and others. Predictably, violence against minorities is often justified. Is it any wonder that Pakistan’s non-Muslim population, including a large chunk of the Ahmadiyya community, is now a mere 3 percent? When Pakistan was born, that percentage was about 30 – not including Ahmadiyyas.

Yet, in this suffocating environment, minorities have been able to expand the parameters of their space. Pakistan’s Haroon Khalid, a freelance journalist who is an anthropologist by training, introduces us to younger Hindus who now insist on celebrating their religious events abandoned after the sub-continent’s partition by their elders. Ditto for Sikhs, who too now celebrate Lohri and other festivals in places where they are more in number after fleeing tribal areas due to pan-Taliban influence.

The Hinduization of the young in Pakistan has been an ironic byproduct of the Islamization of the Muslim youth. This has led to a sort of Hindu religious revivalism in select areas. In Bahawalnagar, for example, 35-year-old Babar Raza (real name Balram) and his friends have expanded, with community help, what was a one-room Durga temple into a complex with two other temples and a langar hall. So much so, that when the author was touring the area, a group of 12 boys came riding on bicycles saying ’Ek do teen char, Mata teri jai jai kar!’ This scene would have been unthinkable until Pervez Musharraf introduced reforms in what was widely seen as a religiously regressive society.

One of the rare places where Muslims still offer prayers to a Hindu saint is a small village named after him: Ram Thamman, on the outskirts of Kasur. It was also a Muslim, Ghulam Hussain, now 85, whose family in 1947 saved the main room where the saint’s samadhi lay and moved into an adjacent building which had a temple dedicated to Goddess Kali and Lord Shiva. But for them, this shrine too would have been taken over by refugees pouring in from India and converted into a household like hundreds of temples and gurdwaras all over Pakistani Punjab. The one reason why the festival of Baisaki has survived in Ram Thamman is because it is essentially a celebration of the start of the harvesting season.

The small Valmiki temple at Neela Gumbad Mandir in Lahore has come up again after being savagely destroyed by Muslim fanatics in response to the destruction of the Babri mosque in India in 1992. But it is not an easy life for the small Valmiki community in Lahore. Many have taken up Christian and Muslim names to avoid being noticed in a society where Hindus are seen as a taboo. A few have even converted to Christianity or Islam. Shazia Waled, 45 and a Hindu convert to Islam, tells the author: "Living as a minority in Pakistan is tough." A Christian woman, Saima Rabnawaz, is so traumatized by the attacks she has witnessed on Christian houses by thugs that she says: "I don’t interact with Muslims now having realized that no matter how sweet they are to you, they can never be trusted. They can harm us any day when it comes to their religion."

How did the situation come to this pass? As the newly independent Pakistan grappled with issues of identity, it began to shun all cultural festivals that reminded it of its past conjoined with the Hindu and Sikh communities. And living under the shadow of a Muslim majority, Sikhs and Hindus also stopped celebrating their events.

During both the wars with India in 1965 and 1971, Hindus and Sikhs came under widespread attack; the Babri mosque’s razing triggered a violent backlash, directed at Hindu shrines. Even temples which had been abandoned for decades were set upon. The blasphemy laws have ensured the persecution of religious minorities with no one ready to speak for them. Forget Hindu temples, today only 16 out of 135 historical gurdwaras are functional in Pakistan although Islamabad displays public sympathy for the Sikh community in India. The rest are used as houses, farms, stables or isolated make-out spots for villagers.

A White Trail is indeed a journey or pilgrimage through the various religious shrines, rituals and festivals of non-Muslim Pakistan. What makes this book a fascinating and gripping read is author Khalid’s eye for the minutest details. Thanks to him, you are transported to every setting and place he has visited. Notwithstanding the religious revivalism of the minorities and that small sections of Sikhs and Christians have made it good in life, the overall picture for the minorities is dismal in Pakistan. Even the sari, once frequently worn, is today seen as a Hindu symbol and no longer appreciated. Christians are derogatively dubbed ’chuhra’. Ahmadiyyas have undergone terrible suffering after being declared non-Muslims despite playing a key role in Pakistan’s birth. There is also visible and brazen ’untouchability’ practiced by Muslims vis-à-vis the minorities; many restaurants, particularly in rural parts, refuse to serve Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs saying they don’t have cutlery reserved for them! Muslim fundamentalism in Pakistan has turned Islam upside down.

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