A future for minorities
As the first national census for 18 years commences Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif used the occasion of the Hindu holiday of Holi to lay out his views — and by extension the views of his government — relating to the minority religious groups within the majority Muslim population. The PM pledged on Tuesday 14th March to protect the religious minorities through the introduction of tougher legislation and its enforcement. Laudable as his wards are translating them into action is going to be a different matter, particularly as there is already legislation in place protecting minorities but it is widely abused or simply flouted. Such constitutional rights as are enjoyed by minorities are also frequently forgotten.
It is perhaps worth noting that the Sindh assembly has passed a bill that criminalises forced conversions of minority community members. It is equally worth noting that the bill invited considerable anger from religious scholars who argued that it was against the teachings of Islam and contrary to the Constitution. Of ominous note is that the Sindh governor has yet to sign the bill into law.
The PM’s speech was made at an event organised by the minority wing of the Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PML-N). His words had a particular relevance for the Hindu community in Sindh, where forced conversions and abductions are almost a commonplace, as is the violation and desecration of Hindu holy places and shrines. The PM has appealed for introspection — not a gift that Pakistan is by-and-large well endowed with — and reflection as to how religious diversity may be translated into strength rather than as is so often the case a source of division, violence, destruction and death. Such messages of inclusivity and tolerance are a rarity coming from so high on the political ladder. Tolerance is in as short supply as introspection, and rare it may be but we welcome the PM’s sentiments.
Intolerance has been growing in the last decade, and the plight of the minorities has worsened year on year. Where minority members are the subject of attacks those who attacked them are rarely brought to justice — and if they are, as in a very recent instance, the case is thrown out by the judiciary for lack of or simply flawed evidence, and this despite copious footage of easily-identifiable perpetrators engaged in acts of violence and destruction. This does nothing to promote a sense of trust or security within minorities, an unknown number of whom have fled abroad.
Creating an atmosphere, a culture, of tolerance is not going to be easy or indeed popular. The ruling party has neglected the moral imperatives that ought to be driving the engine of tolerance; and picking them up somewhat belatedly and that in the year before an election when every vote may count, smacks of a certain cynicism. That said we are going to give the PM the benefit of the doubt, and look forward to not just hearing of but reporting on, across the country, a growth in religious tolerance and inclusivity.