‘Abandon religious binary’

The soon to culminate year 2019 saw continued tension and hostility between nuclear armed neighbours India and Pakistan

In late February, an aerial dogfight took place between the two air forces, with both IAF and PAF launching cross-border raids in the aftermath of the Pulwama bombing in Jammu & Kashmir, which killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel. Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured by Pakistani forces during the dogfight and then returned as a ‘peace gesture’.

With Indian general elections taking place across April and May, the anti-Pakistan rhetoric was on the high across the border, similar to the anti-India jibes during the general elections in Pakistan last year.

After the resounding win of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Indian elections, the Indian government in August abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution undoing the special status of Jammu & Kashmir. Islamabad retorted to the Indian move by taking it up at international fora, with Prime Minister Imran Khan making it the central theme of his United Nations General Assembly speech in September as well.

With Kashmir under continued lockdown since August, and Pakistan vociferously underlining the violations therein, the growing animosity between the two South Asian states reared its religionist head.

Where Islamabad continues to interpret Indian brutalities in Kashmir an anti-Muslim manoeuvre, a spike in anti-Hindu sentiments is observed every time Pakistan and India clash.

“In our jingoism and hate-spewing we often forget that over 4 million Hindus live in Pakistan… ‘Indians’ [does] not mean Hindus. [We should] not relate Indians with Hindus.” says human rights activist Kapil Dev.    

Prominent examples of anti-Hindu bigotry in the aftermath of New Delhi’s move to abrogate the special status of Jammu & Kashmir include political commentator Zaid Zaman Hamid posting a picture of a slaughtered cow on his Twitter account with the caption, ‘Listen Indians, here goes your mom’.

In September, signs in Karachi apartment buildings were seen underlining that ‘non-Muslims aren’t allowed to purchase or rent flats’ here, after a Hindu family was denied residence in the city’s Clifton area.

“The prefix non [in non-Muslims] negates our identity. We are not ‘non-Muslims’, we are Hindus,” Kapil Dev maintains.

In addition to anti-Hindu rhetoric increasing amidst tensions with India, there is always the threat of violence as well. This self-manifested when Islamist mobs vandalised three Hindu temples in Ghotki, and damaged a school whose principal was accused of blasphemy.

Pakistani Hindus maintain that the long-term solution to overcome anti-Hindu bigotry is to undo the indoctrination of the past decades, often through school curricula, along with the abandonment of the religious binary in the conflict with India.

“Pakistan and India are multireligious states. So whenever politics is discussed, the focus should be on states and not any religions,” says Jai Prakash Moorani, the editor of the Hyderabad-based Daily Ibrat.

“If India does something, it’s the act of their government and leadership. Condemn Narendra Modi… those committing atrocities in Kashmir should be condemned – we condemn them, the entire world is condemning them. Our viewpoint is one hundred percent the same as the view of the Pakistani state,” he adds.

“But criticism of India shouldn’t mean criticism of Hindus, because that means a particular religion is targeted, and those believing in that religion are citizens of your state as well, and have played a major role in the country – including its defence. There are many Hindus in the Pakistani Army and many have embraced martyrdom for the country as well.”

Recent years have seen Pakistan take a few steps to undo seven decades of wrongs against the local Hindu community. Then Punjab government spokesperson Fayyaz-ul-Hassan Chohan was sacked for anti-Hindu comments in the aftermath of the aerial clashes with India this year. The mob that desecrated temples in Ghotki was booked for the anti-Hindu riots as well.

Similarly addressing a Holi event in 2017, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif looked to present a revisionist approach towards the creation of Pakistan, seeking pluralism and inclusiveness for the Hindu community.

However, while Pakistani Hindus appreciate these gestures, they maintain that their bigger issues remain unaddressed. Given Pakistan’s condemnation of the Hindutva ideology fostered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in India, and the persecution of the religious minorities, local activists have continued to ask Islamabad to address the human rights of its own minorities as well.

“The rhetoric, discussion on the media, the language used is designed to target Hindus more so than India. The backlash of events in Occupied Kashmir is felt in the society, which should not happen,” says the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf’s (PTI) Member of the National Assembly on Minorities Lal Malhi.

“The PM condemns Hindutva not Hindus. Hindutva is a supremacist ideology that declared that members of other religion are inferior. I condemn that – every religion gives a message of love and peace and no one should consider themselves supreme,” Malhi adds.

Many found symbolism in the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor for Indian Sikh pilgrims on November 9, coming on the same day the Indian Supreme Court gave its verdict on the Ayodhya dispute, asking the Hindus to construct the temple on the disputed site. And every time such a move takes place in India, the concerns for Pakistani Hindus increase over a backlash.

“Pakistan’s position has always been that terrorism has no religion. It’s the act of an individual and should be seen as such, without using it to target any religion. Extremism in any form is unacceptable – whether it’s RSS or any other group,” says Jai Prakash Moorani.

“For me extremism is the belief that what one feels is the absolute truth and anyone disagreeing with it doesn’t deserve to live. It shouldn’t be used to sideline any religion, because the vast majority of its members would be promoting peace and tolerance,” he adds.

“The local Hindus have seen three major wars. In ‘65 and ‘71 Indian forces actually penetrated the border and many [Hindus] migrated to India, but we chose preferred Pakistan, we chose this land. There are certain elements hell bent on spreading hatred. And they don’t only target Hindus, they also bomb mosques.”

Lal Malhi says the government is working on addressing the concerns of the religious minorities, including the Hindus.

“The biggest problem for Hindus is forced conversion. The parliament has passed a motion to form a parliamentary committee featuring members of senate and the National Assembly that will investigate forced conversions and suggest legislation to curb it,” he says.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan over 1,000 girls belonging to religious minorities are forcibly converted to Islam every year. On average 5,000 Pakistani Hindus migrate to India every year according to Member of the National Assembly, and the head of the Pakistan Hindu Council, Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani.

“Pakistani Hindus consider themselves, and are, loyal to Pakistan. Their rights are enshrined in the constitution and should not be affected. Pakistani religious minorities have wholeheartedly participated in all activities over Kashmir,” maintains Lal Malhi.

In August, the Pakistani Hindu community expressed its solidarity with the Kashmiris at a Shiv Mandir in Umerkot. Addressing the gathering Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had said that the religious minorities expressing solidarity with Kashmiri Muslims was in ‘stark contrast’ to India where the religious majority is curbing the rights of others. Now the locals await talking up of such symbolism to translate into genuine egalitarianism in Pakistan.

KK Shahid is a Lahore-based reporter and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-Asia network of grassroots reporters.

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