B D Sharma
News emanating from Pakistan in the recent days give a faint hope that the country entrenched in bigotry may be turning a new leaf. Some days back, Pakistan Government restored rightful place to Dr Abdus Salam, the Nobel laureate Pakistani physicist when the Physics Department of Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad was named after him. Despite his huge contributions to science in Pakistan, Dr Salam had long been forgotten because he happened to be an Ahmedi. Interestingly he along with his fellow Ahmedi, Zaffar Ullah Khan, the renowned diplomat and jurist, figure among the very few Pakistanis who have brought laurels to their country in the international arena. Earlier, the Jihadis had put blocks to the elevation of Gen. Bajwa as Army Chief because they nursed objections against him as some relations of Bajwa’s wife happened to be Ahmedis.But the Government did not succumb to their pressure.
These developments come as a whiff of fresh air in a nation deeply entrenched in religious extremism. These decisions were taken by the Government soon after the Pak Parliament had passed Hindu Marriage Bill. The miniscule minority had long been clamouring for a law regulating registration of their marriages so that they did not experience any difficulty to settle their family affairs. In order to redress another grievance of the minorities, the Sindh Assembly had also passed a bill to check arbitrary and frequent conversions. In another development the Capital Development Agency, Islamabad allotted land to the Hindu community for construction of a temple and a crematorium in the capital city after a persistent demand for forty years. All these amends, one after the other, shows that the voice of the oppressed minorities is being given an ear in Pakistan.
Unfortunately some of these decisions particularly the one regarding the ban on conversions has been opposed by the fundamental organisations such as Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamiat Ulema Islam and Jammat-ud-Dawah of Hafiz Saeed. But their opposition is being resisted by the civil society and the Government. Good sense at last has prevailed and minorities are being considered as an important component of the society. It is perhaps being understood that minorities are a blessing and they also help to bring ascendance and development of a country if their capabilities are properly utilised.
It may not be out of place to mention that Pakistan fell in the vortex of authoritarianism and fundamentalism gradually after independence despite her founder Jinnah’s pleadings for equal rights to all her citizens. His followers did not pay heed to his advice and brought a death knell to secularism when they adopted the Objectives Resolution in 1949. Army grabbed the power when democracy could not establish its roots. It further spread its tentacles widely and the civilian institutions became its adjunct. In order to consolidate its hold further the army promoted religious fundamentalism and Pakistan got badly inflicted with the virus of extremism.
Consequently, the forces of rationality and moderation became weak in the country and the appendages of democracy like secularism, liberalism, free press and intellectual discourse got a beating. The minorities were the worst sufferers. The political class played to the gallery and did not come to their rescue. The few politicians like SalmaanTaseer who came forward in support of minorities were eliminated.In spite of this, the voices of modernity and rationality speak out and oppose the decadent thinking of the fundamentalist elements. These voices of sanity and rationality gained a lot of ground particularly after the control over media was eased by Gen. Musharaf. This movement of free thought and active discourse has further been strengthened due to advancements in information technology and gaining of popularity by social media.
Though there are many hurdles by army and religious fundamentalists in Pakistan, yet the spirit of rationality has remained a vibrant and potent force there. The role of civil society in ousting Ayub Khan, ZA Bhutto and Parvez Musharaf need no emphasis. A good number of free thinkers and rationalists have played their role in the fight for human rights particularly for the rights of minorities. They have taken the fundamentalists head-on. A brief mention of some of these illustrious men and women will be of some interest to us. Najm Sethi, Hassan Nissar, Tarek Fatah, Hussain Haqqani and Parvez Hoodbhoy are some leading champions for the rights of minorities. They are fighting for other progressive causes also. Najm published Tehmina Durrani’s politically explosive book ‘My Feudal Lord’ and exposed kidnapping of six Chinese women and its linkage with Lal Masjid. Hussain Haqqani spoke of ‘unique window of opportunity’ for the civilian government to gain an upper hand due to the military’s complicity in the Bin Laden affair. Hassan Nissar’s articles and talks are very popular which centre around current affairs in Pakistan and its history particularly its distorted version. Tarek Fatah has since migrated to Canada and though unwelcome to Pakistan, he remains popular among Pakistanis settled in the West and in Arab countries. Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of South Asia’s leading nuclear scientists writes about the self-enforced backwardness of the Muslim world in the spheres of science, technology, trade and education. Many articles and television documentaries by him have made a lasting impact on the debate about education, Islam and secularism in Pakistan.
Asma Jehangir and Marvi Sirmed, the female voices are powerful champions of rights of religious minorities in Pakistan. They are staunch critics of the Hudood Ordinace and blasphemy laws. They are fighting a tough war against the bigot and indoctrinated religious elements in their country. Hamid Mir, a bold journalist andHamid Bashani, barrister who derive their roots from our state are also criticizing the forces inimical to minorities. Hamid Mir faced bullets last year when he talked about highhandedness of ISI. Dr Shahid Masood, Sherry Rehman, Younis Sheikh, Akhter Baloch and Ali Chisti and many others are also playing crucial role to retrieve Pakistan from a culture of dogmatism and fanaticism.
They rightly point out that the deranged tendencies in Pakistani society such as extremism, intolerance, militancy, sectarianism, dogmatism and fanaticism will eat into the vitals of her polity. The emergence of extremist elements and the respectability accorded to them by the Pakistani state and society is leading the nation to decline, they argue. Apart from due dignity and honour to minorities they fight for plurality and inclusiveness in Pakistani society, due recognition to regional languages and friendly ties with its neighbours.
The civil society of Pakistan is working under lot of pressure from the state’s ideology, state apparatus and non-state actors, religious extremist and fundamentalist groups. Pakistan is a difficult place to work for these persons where they face severe threats. Their whereabouts are monitored, phones are tapped, and fabricated cases are registered against them. There are forced disappearances and many are ultimately killed. The threats do not come only from religious extremist groups and other vested interests such as landlords, factory owners and outlaws but also from the state apparatus. The democratic ethos and human rights concept is alien to many Pakistanis and those who plead for them are branded as anti-national, anti-Islam, agents of America or agents of India.
Still the civil society is doggedly fighting against all these odds and it has played a key role in the emergence of the new thinking in Pakistan. The valiant efforts of these bold and fearless voices of moderation and modernity are bearing fruitgradually. Their discourse should continue to awaken ordinary Pakistani as the voice of reformation in Pakistan should come from within to have maximum impact. All is not lost for Pakistan despite its many challenges and missed opportunities as the country has a band of rationalists and intellectuals who very well understand the challenges to their country.
They only need to assert themselves to convey their message to the society at large. After all Pakistan is born out of the land which is known for its tolerance, catholicity and pluralism. This perhaps made Jinnah to visualize a secular Pakistan in 1947and perhaps as a first step, he got the national song of Pakistan penned by a non-Muslim, Jagan Nath Azad, who later blossomed into a towering literary personality in our state. Moreover, the ancestors of people of this land had been practising religious tolerance since long. Punjab still feels pride in being the land of Guru Nanak, Baba Farid and Bhulle Shah who preached brotherhood. Though Lahore was the centre of Muslim League activities yet the Punjabis had not embraced Muslim League, the blatantly communal organization. The Unionist Party of Sir Chhotu Ram and Sikander Hayat ruled the roost in Punjab. Sir Sikander Hayat remained the most popular and influential politician in Punjab during his lifetime, preventing both Jinnah and Dr Iqbal to gain popularity among majority of Punjabi Muslims. Even after independence the tendency to change the non-Muslim names of important places was resisted by a good section of people. The civil society of Lahore had erupted in anger when dead body of the newly converted Boota Singh was desecrated by family of his ex-wife, Zainab. May good sense prevail upon the people of Pakistan and they bid adieu to the forces of extremism and fundamentalism. People from all faiths should feel to be equal partners in its development. This will ensure stability and progress, not only in Pakistan but in the whole sub-continent. It remains to be seen whether the recent steps of the Pakistan Government are merely cosmetic or a new process of transformation is being ignited there.
(The author of this article is a former civil servant)