Sunday, January 24, 2016

Zeeshan Salahuddin - Strangers in their own land

A research report reveals the plight of minorities in Pakistan

 On Tuesday, January 19, the Jinnah Institute (JI) in Islamabad released their second report on minorities titled “State of Religious Freedoms in Pakistan”. The publication documents and maps incidents of violence and atrocities against minorities since 2012, and the findings are shocking. With the advent of the National Action Plan (NAP), other institutions such as the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) have determined that the incidents of violence overall (and thus violence against minorities) have gone down in the last calendar year, this publication reports at least 351 incidents of violence against minorities since 2012.

Minorities in Pakistan have always been presented as soft targets, easy picking for sectarian groups, and in recent years, even non-sectarian elements. The primary groups that suffer as a result of the state’s weak response are Shias (including Hazaras and sub-sects), Christians, Ahmedis and Hindus. Since 2012, JI reports that 40 attacks of varying scale and intensity were carried out against the Christian community, the most significant ones being a massive arson attack on Joseph Colony in Lahore, and a church bombing in Peshawar. Christians account for 2.5 million individuals in Pakistan. 

During this period seven churches were damaged, and 14 Christians were charged with blasphemy. As stated before, the amount of violence in the country has declined overall, which also lowers the incidents of violence against minorities overall. However, in interviews and conversations with JI researchers, it is evident that the Christian community feels marginalized, a second class of citizen, unprotected practically despite being protected constitutionally, and a non-priority for the state.

There has been an increase in violence against Shias

Nearly 1 million Hindus reside in Pakistan, with 80% of them hailing from Sindh. Hindus bear the additional issue of being discriminated against institutionally, as they are labelled as untrustworthy, vile, and evil traitors, even within curriculum taught in schools. This systemic hatred and acrimony translates into forced marriages, forced conversions to Islam with complete boycott from the originating family, and rape of young girls in the Hindu community. This is further exacerbated by regularly targeting of the Hindu community by extortionists and kidnappers. The systematic and systemic stigmatization of Hindus is also resulting in mass migrations of Hindu populations from Pakistan to neighboring India.

Ahmedis have the added disadvantage of being discriminated constitutionally, the report says. This marginalization originates from the anti-Ahmadi Ordinance XX of 1984, which criminalizes any Ahmadi for declaring themselves as Muslims. Between 2014-2015, 39 Ahmadis were killed in religiously motivated attacks. Of the hundreds of Ahmadis displaced by persecution, several have sought asylum abroad. Most recently, in Lahore, a step by the government to remove a discriminatory sign against Ahmadis from a local shop resulted in a massive protest by right-wing parties, calling the incident an insidious Ahmadi conspiracy.

Shias, unfortunately, are the worst affected community. CRSS data suggests that even though overall violence against minorities has halved since 2014, there has been anincrease in violence against Shias in the country. In the last three years, JI recorded 23 attacks on Shia places of worship. There were 203 target killings and 1,304 Shias were killed in bomb attacks. In places like Balochistian, public anti-Shia messaging continues unabated, and blasphemy charges and other legal harassment is also used as a tool, even in the most populous province of Punjab.

The stigmatization of Hindus is resulting in mass migration

The report provides 15 recommendations for the state and provincial units. These include regulation and registration of seminaries and regulation of their curricula, accurate databases of sectarian and religiously-driven attacks as well as blasphemy cases, additional training and capacity building of law enforcement agencies, and reenergizing the practically defunct National Commission on Human Rights and giving it magistracy rights to take up public interest litigation. The recommendations also include setting up parliamentary committees, government job quotas, and teachings of tolerance.

As it stands, the government progress, even under the NAP, has not been effective. It is convenient to hide behind the numbers, but it is clear that nothing concrete has been done to not just protect minorities in Pakistan, strangers in their own land, but actually empower them to be prominent members of society without fear of persecution, harassment or death.