A Review of Purifying the Land of the Pure – Pakistan’s Religious Minorities : Guest Post by Karthik Venkatesh

Guest Post by Karthik Venkatesh

Pakistan was created as a homeland for the sub-continent’s Muslims and yet, even before it had formally taken birth, its founder in a famous speech delivered on August 11, 1947 stated his intention to establish a secular nation where religion would be relegated to the private sphere and the public discourse would be given to pressing development issues. Jinnah’s first cabinet consisted of an Ahmadi (considered by orthodox Muslims as a heretical sect), Sir Zafarullah Khan and Jogendranath Manadal, a Hindu from East Pakistan. Jinnah himself was a Shia while the majority of Pakistan’s Muslims were Sunnis. Roughly one-quarter of Pakistan was non-Muslim at the time of independence and secularism seemed a realistic option. Also, Jinnah’s actions appeared to imply that it would actually be practised. But events proved otherwise.

During Jinnah’s time itself, as Ispahani adeptly documents, an unhealthy nexus had begun to develop between politicians and extremist religious groups. His death in 1948 merely served to accentuate this process. In March 1949, PM Liaquat Ali Khan moved the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly which set the tone for the Islamisation of Pakistan.

Ispahani’s narration suggests that while the early phase of Islamisation partly came from political compulsions, part of it stemmed from a deep insecurity about Pakistan itself. Pakistan till it came into existence had been an idea, an idea barely a decade and a half old. How then was it to sustain itself without resorting to its foundational credo – Islam – even if it meant putting on the backburner modernist ideas about justice, citizenship and the like.

In due course, Islamisation increased and by 1950, Jogendranath Mandal and a sizeable number of Hindus had left East Pakistan. In 1953, Pakistan witnessed its first serious anti-Ahmadi riot.

On the other hand, it wasn’t as if the Islamisation project proceeded smoothly. Clerics disagreed with each other on virtually every issue and the Constitution making process dragged on till 1956. Also, what became evident during this time was West Pakistan’s (read Punjab) domination of the national discourse and the resultant marginalization of Bengali East Pakistan. The Constitution finalized in 1956 was soon abrogated when Gen. Ayub Khan took power in a military coup in 1958. Ayub inaugurated a period of economic growth which compared well with India, but he was not above using Islam to prop up his regime. This was particularly visible during the 1965 war with India when xenophobic passions were raised to fever pitch. Pakistan’s Hindus came under suspicion, but strangely, the post-war scenario also saw the gradual rise of anti-Shia feelings. The post-war period witnessed a great deal of instability and also the rise of the charismatic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Ayub gave in to popular demand and resigned in 1969 to be replaced by Gen. Yahya Khan.

Over the next couple of years, Pakistan teetered on the precipice as its west wing, led nominally by Yahya, but in reality by Bhutto and its east wing headed by an equally charismatic Sheikh Mujibur Rehman seemed to be on a collision course. Things came to a head in the 1971 election, when a petulant Bhutto refused to share power with Mujib. The resultant turn of events resulted in a humiliating defeat for Pakistan at the hands of its arch-nemesis, India and the loss of its east wing, which became Bangladesh.

Bhutto who had emerged as a leader under Ayub’s tutelage initially professed socialism. Post 1971, he emerged as the alternative to the discredited Yahya and initially sought to focus on bread-and-butter issues, but began to veer towards Islamisation when his popularity seemed to be diminishing. In 1974, bowing to the long-held demands of extremist clerics, the Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims. The 1977 election resulted in a Bhutto victory, but the Opposition alleged large-scale rigging and took to the streets. In the resulting tension, the Army under Gen. Zia-ul-Haq seized power. This inaugurated a decade of Islamisation whose effects Pakistan continues to feel to this day.

The Afghan crisis and US involvement flooded Pakistan with weapons, weapons meant to fight the Soviets, but some of which found their way to Pakistan’s Islamist extremists. Zia’s was an overt religiosity which found expression in all aspects of public life, be it education, women’s rights or scientific research. He vigorously underlined Pakistan’s Islamic identity, further marginalizing the minorities. Zia’s Deobandi Sunni leanings also alienated the Shias. The Sharia was implemented with great harshness and lashings became common. The Afghan situation resulted in easy availability of weapons which set the scene for a serious crisis in the years to come. During Zia’s time, the government also began to aid madrasas, many of which were run by clerics with a very simple view of Islam. By the end of Zia’s regime, Jinnah’s secular dream was in tatters.

Ispahani’s narrative of how the civilian governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif who ruled Pakistan in turn from 1988 to 1999 is interesting. That these democratically elected governments couldn’t put an end to Pakistan’s Islamisation reveals the extent to which Islamic ideology had invaded public and private life in Pakistan. By the mid-nineties, violence against Shias and Ahmadis had reached inhuman proportions. Armed with weapons, groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba undertook a number of attacks, often with covert support from rogue elements in the ISI, army or the local police. Oftentimes, attacks were co-ordinated with prayer times to achieve maximum casualties. The Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan in 1994 aided actively by the ISI also happened in this period, an event that was to have a serious impact on Pakistan a few years later.

Also, during this time, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were invoked with disastrous effects against Pakistan’s largely impoverished Christian population. Christians who were seen as agents of the West came in for particular targeting. In 1997, Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad shot himself in front of a Sahiwal court building in protest against the blasphemy laws. The powers that be remained unmoved. Sharif was now attempting to centralize power using Islamic pretexts. In 1999, Sharif was overthrown in a coup by a self-professed moderate Muslim, Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf initially attempted to reach out to Pakistan’s minorities and tone down the religious rhetoric. But the situation post 9/11 situation cast him in a role not dissimilar to Ayub. Musharraf was now caught in a piquant situation. On the one hand, the Americans were using Pakistan as a base firstly to end Taliban rule in Afghanistan and then to control the post-Taliban situation. The population fed on Islamic rhetoric largely supported the Taliban whereas Musharraf for geo-strategic reasons was compelled to support the US. Musharraf reacted by resorting to the by now familiar tactic of invoking Islamisation. This emboldened the extremists and attacks on minorities increased. Madrasas preaching a hate-filled ideology were growing rapidly. Musharraf by the end of his regime had done very little to improve the lot of Pakistan’s minorities. The situation hasn’t improved much since.

Ispahani’s is a work of scholarship and great understanding of the Pakistan story. The process of Islamisation has been documented in great detail. But there are a few gaps in the book that need to be pointed out. The subtitle ‘Pakistan’s Religious Minorities’ leads one to believe that the book will document the lot of Pakistan’s Hindus, Christians and Sikhs. This hope is belied to some extent. The Shia minority and Ahmadi minority are documented in far greater detail than the others. Given that these groups are considered Muslim (were considered Muslim in the Ahmadi case), this is a revelation. But, one wishes that some more space had been devoted to the other minorities as well. Also, a third person historical narrative while being exhaustive does come across as impersonal. One feels the need for some more first-person minority voices which would have provided a more personal view. Thirdly, there is perhaps to highlight the contribution of Pakistan’s minorities. Mention of a few prominent minority names would have helped. But these minor quibbles apart, Purifying the Land of the Pure is an absorbing read. And a deathly reminder to our own nation about letting right-wing obscurantists dictate the national discourse.

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