Recently, a letter written by the executive director of the Higher Education Commission was circulating on social media. The content of the letter was indeed disturbing, as the celebration of Holi at Quaid e Azam University did not sit well with the author. She saw this incident as an attack on the “Islamic identity” of Pakistan. However, her stance was widely criticized online, which led to the Higher Education Commission and the Parliament reversing the letter and issuing an apology. The Federal Education Minister also made a statement to clarify the controversy.
Although the controversial opinion of the executive director did not receive much support, it is important to contemplate where such thinking originates. Some may consider it a personal choice, but in reality, these views reflect the mindset of a specific class. The fundamental principle of this narrative is a lack of inclusivity and a regressive interpretation of religion and so-called “national interest.”
Proponents of this narrative believe that Pakistan is a country solely for Muslims, while considering all other religious minorities as second-class citizens. The unfortunate fusion of religion and state has deprived minorities of their right to rule. According to the constitution of Pakistan, non-Muslims cannot become the Prime Minister or President of the country. Due to this reality, Pakistan is always perceived as an Islamic country that does not accommodate other religious minorities.
Ironically, since this ideology is based on fundamentalist and extremist ideas, supporters of this narrative consider only their interpretation of Islam as the true representation of the religion. For instance, Shia Muslims often face discrimination when they practice and profess their version of Islam. The Hazara community in Quetta, in particular, and Shia Muslims in general, are socially marginalized within their own homeland.
This bigotry and intolerance towards diversity have already had severe consequences, but we have not learned from our tragic past experiences. The cold-blooded murder of Shaheed Mashal Khan is still awaiting justice. He was neither an atheist nor a foreign agent; he was simply a curious young student whom an intolerant society could not tolerate. The public lynching of Priyantha Kumara from Sri Lanka was a source of national humiliation, as he was killed in the name of Islam, although it had nothing to do with religion.
Considering the dangers of building an exclusive society where only one school of thought is allowed to thrive, extremist ideas that undermine Pakistan’s democratic values must be discouraged at the national level. Celebrating Holi, Diwali, or Christmas in such a toxic environment is indeed a positive step towards building an inclusive and diverse society. It not only sends a positive signal to the world beyond Pakistan but also strengthens the bonds within our religiously diverse society.
The state of Pakistan needs to stand with its religious minorities, as it has done in this specific case, and provide them with a safe and secure atmosphere so they do not contemplate leaving their motherland. Unfortunately, Hindus now constitute less than 2% of Pakistan’s population, but it was not always the case. At the time of Pakistan’s inception, Hindus made up nearly 5% of the population, but numerous Hindu families have migrated to India, the US, and European countries simply because they were not given enough space here.
Given the current circumstances, it is of paramount importance to protect our religious minorities, as they represent an entire culture. As part of the solution, people need to be made more aware of our religious minorities. For instance, since Sindh is home to the largest population of Hindus, primary-level education could include lessons on Hindu festivals and their traditions. This way, people will gain insight into the background of these festivals and will not view them as alien traditions.
Moreover, political parties need to take this issue more seriously and actively promote candidates during elections in areas where significant minority votes are present. Non-Muslim legislators should be included in the cabinet and given more important portfolios than the Ministry of Minorities, as a way to address this problem.