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ANALYSIS: Pakistan and the dehumanisation of minorities — Ishtiaq Ahmed
How do we explain that despite several Sufi shrines being targeted by suicide bombers, the Ahle Sunnat ulema are demanding that Aasia Bibi should be executed? How can the Ahle Sunnat ignore that fact that they themselves are on the hit list of extremists who consider them guilty of crimes no less serious than blasphemy?
Professor Brij Narain was a famous Lahore-born academic whose books on economics were on the required reading list of the curricula of pre-partition universities. Enamoured by Jinnah’s English lifestyle and mannerism and himself strongly secular and idealistic, Brij Narain underestimated the morbid impact of the rabidly anti-Hindu and anti-Sikh rhetoric of the 1945-46 election campaign in Punjab. He developed a strong set of arguments to prove that Pakistan was economically feasible and viable. When partition took place in mid-August 1947 and Lahore was burning, he continued to believe that Hindus like him could be Pakistanis like any other community. A mob arrived at his door and mercilessly killed him notwithstanding his pleas that he supported Pakistan.
Miss Ralia Ram was a Lahore-born Christian lady who wrote letter after letter to Quaid-e-Azam warning him about Congress machinations. She too believed in the righteousness of Pakistan. Her letters are easily accessible in the several volumes of the Jinnah Papers. Fortunately in 1947, Christians were not a target group. Many Hindus and Muslims saved their lives by faking a Christian identity. Both in Amritsar and in Kasur thousands of Muslim refugees received medical aid from Christian volunteers.
Even more interesting is the fact that the majority of Punjabi Christians supported the Muslim League’s case for Pakistan before the Punjab Boundary Commission. Their leader, S P Singha, argued that the Christians would rather have a united Punjab, but if Punjab were to be divided they could expect better treatment in Pakistan than in caste-ridden India. The leader of the Anglo-Indians Mr Gibbon informed the Punjab Boundary Commission that the Anglo-Indians were happy to be in Pakistan. They regarded Lahore and West Punjab as their homeland.
I have already mentioned in an earlier op-ed that the leadership of the Ahmediyya community was deeply worried about persecution in a sectarian Pakistan. However, just before the partition of India it was decided to support the Pakistan movement (Munir Report 1954: 196-7). Thereafter the Ahmedis put all their efforts behind the Muslim League’s campaign. Sir Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, a leading member of the Ahmediyya community, presented the Muslim League case before the Punjab Boundary Commission with sterling competence. The counsel for the Congress Party, Mr Setalvad, could not restrain himself from publicly paying compliments to Zafarullah during the proceedings. In 1947, the Ahmedis were still included in government statistics among Muslims, and that alone had inflated the Muslim percentage of the Gurdaspur district to a bare majority of 51 percent.
All such stories sound unreal in the light of the Pakistan experience. The Hindus were naturally the first to flee from Pakistan. The next to exit were the Anglo-Indians. The Ahmedis started seeking refuge in the west in the 1980s. Only in Sindh a Hindu minority survived while in the rest of Pakistan mostly the poorest Christians stayed put because they had nowhere to go.
Ridiculing Sikhs as simpletons is a prejudice that still survives in Pakistani Punjab, but their leaders proved to be the most farsighted in anticipating the type of Pakistan that would emerge. In the second half of May 1947, the Sikh leaders met Jinnah in Delhi. Jinnah and Liaquat had come fully prepared to convince them to support the Pakistan demand. They told the Sikhs to write down whatever they wanted and it would be granted. The charm offensive, however, was too late in the day. Earlier, in March 1947, Sikh villages in the Rawalpindi, Attock and Jhelum districts had borne the brunt of mob attacks at the hands of Muslims. At least 2,000 Sikhs lost their lives.
No Muslim League leader, including Jinnah, issued a public statement condemning those attacks. I have looked in vain in the two main English-language newspapers of pre-partition Punjab, the Tribune and The Pakistan Times as well as in the Jinnah Papers for any evidence of the condemnation of that outrage. In the event, Hardit Sikh Malik, who acted as the spokesperson for the Sikhs told Jinnah that they could not risk their future on his promises; the day he is gone things would change. He was right.
I have always held the view that the anti-minority stance took birth at the time of the 1945-46-election campaign in the Muslim-majority provinces of north-western India. Once it was born, it assumed a life of its own. Only someone totally naive can believe that Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech was a magic mantra that could suffice to make it vanish. Already in early 1951, the ulema of all Sunni sub-sects — including the Barelvis — and the Ithna Ashari Shias had signed the 22-point Islamist agenda for an Islamic state prepared by Maulana Maududi. Gradually that agenda encroached on the constitutional and legal machinery, culminating in the Islamisation measures of General Ziaul Haq.
The mindset that such measures generated percolated all sections of society, with a few honourable exceptions. In the current situation, while President Zardari and Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer are willing to spare the life of the Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who most certainly has been wrongly framed on charges of blasphemy, federal Law Minister Babar Awan has made theatrical pronouncements in support of the draconian Blasphemy Law, thus undermining his own government. The legal fraternity remains badly divided. While the Lahore High Court has issued a stay order against the reprieve granted by the president, the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), Ms Asma Jahangir has boldly criticised that decision. The confusion is absolute.
How do we explain that despite several Sufi shrines being targeted by suicide bombers the Ahle Sunnat ulema are demanding that Aasia Bibi should be executed? How can the Ahle Sunnat ignore that fact that they themselves are on the hit list of extremists who consider them guilty of crimes no less serious than blasphemy? The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) is considered a ‘democratic, parliamentary’ party by some western academics. I have seen with my own eyes a doctoral thesis passed by the reputable Gothenburg University of Sweden in support of JI’s democratic credentials. Its leader, Syed Munnawar Hassan, has also demanded that Aasia Bibi should be put to death. That is the type of democracy the JI actually represents.
Can one seriously believe that all these people who are crying for the blood of a poor Christian woman are doing this for their love for Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)? Perhaps, but what a love!
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org