If their handling of the ongoing internally displaced persons (IDP) crisis is any indication, the governments of Sindh and Balochistan have yet to master the art of political correctness. The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa decried the suddenness of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched on June 15, 2014, lamenting that it left the provincial administration with little time to prepare for the inevitable humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, the Punjab government promptly donated 500 million rupees to the chief minister’s relief fund and dispatched 50 trucks laden with relief goods for those in dire need. However, at the same time, the governments of Sindh and Balochistan were busy announcing the sealing of their borders against the influx of displaced people. It took five days of strident criticism by the local and international press, as well as by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, for these provincial governments to change their tune and announce that they would welcome the displaced people with open arms.
When Martin Javed Michael reached Joseph Colony on the evening of March 8, 2013, he could smell fear in the air. The 116-house strong Christian residential neighbourhood in Lahore’s Badami Bagh area was eerily silent. The windows were boarded up and the doors padlocked. It was as if the residents of the colony had been warned of an approaching natural disaster and told to evacuate. But how can a padlock protect your house from a hurricane, wondered Michael.
As the head of the Pakistan Minorities Movement, a non-governmental organisation working to protect the rights of non-Muslim Pakistanis, he has been a frequent visitor to the colony and was friends with many of its residents. But, on that day, he could spot none of his friends there. It seemed that no one was around — except that Michael knew that there were people there, behind those boarded-up windows and locked doors. Some of them, indeed, had called him for help. Standing in the ominous darkness that had engulfed the neighbourhood, he looked around until he saw the familiar face of Liaquat Masih peeking through a window. Liaquat, who ran a machine-repair workshop on the main road outside the colony, let Michael into his house.
Liaquat was the only one at home; his wife and children had gone to his sister’s house in Shahdara, a working-class residential area several kilometres to the north of Joseph Colony. He quickly told Michael about the events of the last two days; then, heeding the urgency of the moment, they rushed to another house situated at the entrance of the colony.
The house at the entrance belonged to Saawan Masih. Outside it, on the main road running along Joseph Colony, lay a singed billiard table. A crowd had gathered around the remains of the table. Someone wondered how the table had been pulled out through the small entrance of his house; someone else asked why Saawan owned a billiard table in the first place. But no one asked the most relevant question: Why had the table been burnt? Perhaps because everyone knew the answer already.
Saawan, a 35-year-old sanitation worker with the municipal corporation and the father of three children, was being referred to as a ‘lad’ — this could have been because the elders of the community had seen him grow up over the years, so they still regarded him as a child, as most elders lovingly do. As Michael and the others talked about what could happen next, Saawan and his father Chaman Masih came out of the house. Under their breaths, everyone muttered that Chaman was doing the right thing: if he gave up his son to the police, then, the primary reason for the brewing storm would go away and Joseph Colony and its tense residents could breathe easy.
The local police, however, did not seem to think that way. Once at the police station, Michael asked Babar Bakht, the investigating officer, to call those who complained against Saawan, as well as those who had raced to Joseph Colony earlier that day after Friday prayers to hurl insults at the Christians and those who had pulled out Saawan’s billiard table to burn it. But the official refused. He told Michael that those people – mostly residents of Sheikhabad, a Muslim neighbourhood two streets away from Joseph Colony – were enraged and that no good could come out of inviting them for talks right now. Michael did not give up; he asked if Bakht could, at least, assure the Muslims of Saawan’s arrest. He was optimistic that the information would give them a sense of satisfaction. Bakht promised to do what he could.
The rest of Michael’s night was spent in or around the police station, convincing law-enforcement personnel to develop a channel of communication with the Sheikhabad Muslims. But as the night grew darker, fear among the residents of Joseph Colony became stronger. By dawn, they had realised that giving up Saawan had not solved the problem. The confirmation came when the police told them that they “should all leave until the situation calms down”. Officials at the police station warned them that their refusal to leave could “create a situation [that] we won’t be able to control”. But since they were promised that their houses would be protected, the Christians chose to heed the warning. Before long, every one of them had left Joseph Colony to join their families, spread across Lahore, in search of refuge.
They knew what could happen if they had stayed put. In August 2009, Christians living in Gojra, a town known for producing many world-class hockey players and located about 160 kilometres to the south-west of Lahore, had suffered a mob attack that torched and razed 40-odd houses and a couple of churches before burning an entire Christian family to death inside their house. The residents of Joseph Colony knew fully well that the police had done nothing to protect the Gojra Christians from the deadly attack. Indeed, the law-enforcement officials had stood by as the mob “took revenge” for an act of blasphemy allegedly committed a few days earlier at a Christian wedding in a small residential settlement outside Gojra town. It did not matter to the religiously charged crowd that the alleged blasphemers and the victims of the mob attack lived several kilometres apart.
Witnesses and media reports recount how a raging mob of several thousands, armed with clubs, automatic weapons and incendiary chemicals, ransacked the Christian houses, forcing their occupants to run for safety. The mistake that Hameed Masih, a resident of the colony, and his family made was that they refused to leave their house and resisted when the attackers came to burn down their house. This enraged the mob further and some of them, screaming insults and slogans charged the house, shot Hameed dead, bolted the main gate of his house from the outside so that no one could escape and set the modest dwelling on fire. Six people, including two women and one child, were burnt alive along with all the household furniture, utensils, family photos and other valuables. Two more Christians lost their lives before the mob was satisfied that it had exacted its revenge.
Four years later, an inquiry commission appointed by the government to look into the cause and the events of the attack has come up with a highly troubling finding: the allegations of blasphemy that had triggered the incident were baseless. It is ironic that not only did the Gojra Christians lose their lives, along with their homes and hearths, for something that did not even happen but also that no one was even sentenced for the financial and human losses that the ensuing mob attack resulted in.
The violence that erupted in Gojra was also not an isolated episode. It was, in fact, a repeat of what had happened in Sangla Hill town in 2006 and at Shanti Nagar – a Christian village a few kilometres to the east of Khanewal – in 1997. In all these instances, a mob inflicted instant ‘justice’ on entire Christian communities after perceived, manufactured and sometimes even imaginary incidents of blasphemy blamed on individuals.
Non-Muslims are spread across Pakistan in such a way that most of the Christians live in Punjab and most of the Hindus are concentrated in Sindh. Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also house small communities of non-Muslims. Zohra Yusuf, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), explains how this geographical spread is a factor in why incidences of violence against non-Muslims are so common in Punjab. Non-Muslims living in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan do not live in large residential colonies as do the Christians in Punjab, she says, suggesting that targeting an entire community is easier in Punjab where non-Muslim neighbourhoods stand out because of their size and exclusively Christian population. The other reason why mob violence against non-Muslims is not as common in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan as it is in Punjab is because the extremist organisations in these two provinces target Shia Muslims, who are more numerous and more concentrated there than the non-Muslims, she says.
True to a large extent, Yusuf’s theory does not explain why Youhanabad – situated at the other end of Lahore from Joseph Colony, and is reportedly the largest Christian-only slum in the whole of South Asia, housing mostly sanitation workers and domestic servants – is seen as a safe haven by the Christian community. Ishtiaque Gill, a 23-year-old student of law and a resident of Youhanabad, is well-versed in the socio-political dynamics of this expansive residential area, mainly because he is sensitive to the exploitation and persecution that members of his community have to face in their everyday lives. The other factor behind his keen interest in the affairs of Youhanabad’s residents is his brother Tariq Javed’s involvement in electoral politics.
Javed was elected as a district councillor from the area, supported by the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN). Gill’s own political sympathies waver between PMLN, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and complete disenchantment with the political system, as he does not believe that the existing system of reserved seats for non-Muslims in the country’s legislative houses can benefit his community. This system, he says, has spawned Christian leaders who are beholden to the parties that nominate them for reserved seats rather than working for the socio-economic welfare of their community. He is equally unhappy with the religious leaders of his community who, he believes, are part of the reason why Christians in Pakistan are perhaps more backward than any other religious community in the country. “Just think about it, we have more churches than schools in Youhanabad,” he says. “Do you think that is the right way to progress?”One thing about Youhanabad that stands out is that its residents seldom – if at all – complain of having faced discrimination at a personal level. This changes radically at the community level, though. There is not a single government school in Youhanabad while even small villages nearby, which house a majority of Muslims, sometimes have more than one government educational institution. The only education available is provided by private schools which charge as much as 2,500 rupees a month for each child studying there. A sanitation worker, earning anywhere between 10,000 rupees and 15,000 rupees a month, often cannot afford such expensive education for his or her children.
Gill explains how the absence of government schools leads to another problem: since there are no government buildings in Youhanabad, no polling stations are set up for the thousands of Christian voters residing there. “Even though my brother is a political worker, he could not convince my mother to cast her vote, as she was too scared to leave the security of our neighbourhood and go to a polling station in a Muslim neighbourhood,” he says, with a sad grin on his face.
Deep in the winding streets of Youhanabad, there is a house that always stays locked from the inside. This is exceptional in a neighbourhood where doorways not only remain unlocked but even ajar, at most times of the day. Those living inside this house do not open the door to visitors without first thoroughly enquiring about their identities and the purpose of their visit. Ashfaque and Saima (not their real names) who live inside, have a reason for their caution: they don’t want anyone to know about them since this could endanger their lives. Fear, indeed, has haunted the two since they got married 16 months ago after Saima, a Muslim girl from a city in south Punjab, fell in love with Ashfaque, a Christian boy from Lahore. They had first met in a college in Lahore where they were both studying for their bachelor’s degrees.
When Saima wanted to convert to Christianity in order to spend her life with the man she loves, she was very scared. She had never heard of anyone do this before. As the two were making enquiries to find out how she could convert, her fear grew, since religious punishment for a Muslim converting to another religion is death. Since then, her fears have subsided but, every now and then, her husband receives life-threatening phone calls, forcing her fears to come rushing back to her. “I don’t think Ashfaque tells me about all the calls he receives. I think he wants me to raise our daughter in a sense of security,” says Saima as she rocks her four-month-old baby girl on her knee. She has not stepped out of her house since her marriage, except when she needed to visit the hospital.
Ashfaque knows of at least one more couple in a similar situation. “They are now in their fifties and it scares me to know that that they still receive threats via phone calls from complete strangers,” he says, but adds that he did not have much of a choice when he married Saima. “Humans have strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “One of our weaknesses is that we develop emotional attachments to people and then it is impossible to let go.” Ashfaque regrets his failure to complete his masters degree in law due to threats to his life. He, however, expects that he will be able to lead a secure life – mainly because of the fact that he resides in Youhanabad — “one of the safest areas that Christians can find in Pakistan.”
Next to Youhanabad, there is another Christian settlement, Asif Town. Its graveyard reached its capacity years ago. With help from local pastors and priests, the residents of the settlement have written many letters to the officials who lord over the departments in charge of graveyards. The only replies they have received are empty promises that the problem will soon be dealt with. “Meanwhile, we are digging out older dead bodies to make room for new ones,” says Pastor Younus Viklas, who runs a church in Asif Town. “I know it is horrific and unnatural, but what choice do we have?”
Viklas’s church is at the edge of Asif Town. In fact, it is the last building before the Muslim-dominated areas begin. Viklas, therefore, has to be very careful about the sound level of the church microphone. He makes sure that members of his church do not use the microphone during the week unless there is an emergency. Even during the Sunday service, he does not turn the volume up so as to avoid upsetting the Muslims living nearby. There have been complaints in the past.
A few months ago, Viklas wanted to build a toilet in the church for women and children attending service. He collected money from the churchgoers and engaged a builder to design and build the structure. But the construction had to be stopped only a day after it had started. The Muslims living across the road from the church complained that the digging required to lay down drainage pipes for the toilet would “disrupt their lives”. In normal circumstances, government intervention could have resolved the problem to the satisfaction of both communities, but these were extraordinary times. “The Joseph Colony incident had just happened and we had to think of our lives before thinking about our convenience,” Viklas says.
One reason why the attack on Joseph Colony caught its residents and Christians living in other neighbourhoods in Lahore by surprise was because the city had never before experienced such an attack. Non-Muslims living in Lahore may have always felt left out socially, economically and politically but their residential areas were never targeted in the past, says Michael.
The other reason for their surprise was that the whole incident started as a personal squabble between Saawan and his Muslim friend, Shahid Imran, who lives in Sheikhabad and works as a barber. The two had been friends for almost a decade. Many residents of both Joseph Colony and Sheikhabad remember how close Saawan and Imran once were. Humeira Iqtidar, a lecturer at King’s College London who spent many weeks in the two neighbourhoods, after the incident took place, relates that even their families were close as Imran’s wife and mother often spent their days at Saawan’s house, when they visited from out of town.
Shaheen Tariq (also known as Aunty in Joseph Colony) confirms Iqtidar’s statement: “Saawan and Imran were not just ordinary friends. They shared a deep relationship,” she says. “You don’t drink together every night if you don’t enjoy each other’s company,” she adds. Tariq has lived in Joseph Colony all her life and has been running the Tariq Karyana Store, a grocery shop that has been in the colony for more than a decade. She recounts how Imran and Saawan would often crack crude jokes while purchasing snacks from her. “All friendships have room for jokes and Imran and Saawan’s friendship was no different,” she says, but adds that she always warned them to be careful because jokes could easily be misconstrued. The two young men always told her not to worry.
Tariq’s shop is just two shops away from Saawan’s house. From that vantage point, she saw the initial stages of the attack unfold in front of her eyes. First, there were only three boys, all from Sheikhabad, who came there and began challenging Saawan to come out of his house and “face the consequences of his actions”, she says, describing the start of the events of that day back in March. Soon the crowd outside the house started growing bigger by the minute, and scores of people started cursing Saawan and his family.
Tariq’s shop had never been busier and, at least initially, she was delighted to see her sales grow, even though she was feeling a little uneasy about the commotion. Out of curiosity, she started asking her customers as to why there was so much screaming, shouting and name-calling. They told her that Saawan had made fun of Islam. Among the mob outside in front of her shop, she could spot Ghazali Butt, a PMLN leader, and Asad Ashraf, a former member of the Punjab Assembly, along with many men in green turbans. Their presence was reassuring for her. “These are influential people; they will control the crowd and everything will fizzle out,” she recalls telling herself. But the crowd pulled out Saawan’s billiard table to set it alight. She saw two young men purchasing petrol from a nearby shop for the purpose.
By that time, people inside her own house had started panicking. When she tried to dismiss her daughter’s pleas to close down the shop and run away, the girl yelled: “They are not thinking straight. They will break your head if you don’t shut down the shop.” It was at this moment that Tariq’s eye caught a glimpse of the fire being lit just a stone’s throw away from her shop. She pulled down the shutters, grabbed as much money as she could from the cash counter and ran inside her house. Little did she know that those 8,000 rupees would be the only thing she could save from her shop. Though the police managed to disperse the crowd that day, most residents of Joseph Colony knew the worst was yet to come.
According to the Human Rights Watch, an international organisation that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, living conditions for Pakistan’s non-Muslims have drastically deteriorated. Moreover, it stated in its 2012 report that Pakistan has been a “country of particular concern” since 2002 as far as the state of its non-Muslim citizens is concerned. Many in Pakistan, including some members of the non-Muslim communities, still want to believe that the situation is not as bad as it is made out to be.
A large part of this denial stems from the efforts of the state and the elected politicians to hide, rather than improve, the situation. This is exactly what is happening as far as the abduction and conversion of Hindu girls in different parts of Sindh is concerned. In the last half-decade, the incidents of abduction and conversion have risen alarmingly. Official data shows that the number of these incidents has decreased recently though Ravi Davani, the secretary general of All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat, claims that the lower incidence is because there is pressure to stop their reporting. “Firstly, families of the girls now hardly approach the police. Even if they do, the policemen promise help only if the family remains silent,” he says. “The policemen in turn are pressurised by the locally influential landlords to keep the incident under wraps; the landlords are told to do the same by the elected representative of the area,” he adds. “No one wants these incidents to get out anymore. They are too embarrassing for the country.”
The government’s eagerness to keep the incidents of violence and discrimination against non-Muslim Pakistanis a secret is resulting in what Davani sees as religious blackmailing. He recounts how seven Hindu families are residing inside the Shri Laxmi Narain temple – located inside Karachi’ Native Jetty right next to the newly built Port Grande, a shopping, eating and recreational area – in sheer violation of religious edicts but refuse to leave, claiming discrimination and persecution. “How can anyone produce and raise children in a sacred place?” Davani angrily asks. “They eat meat in there. They have built toilets in a 200-year-old place of worship,” he complains.
Davani says that the families shifted inside the temple soon after the destruction of Babri Mosque in India. Bhagwandas Chawla, the then secretary general of the All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat, decided that the temple needed a caretaker to avoid its demolition in the aftermath of the mosque’s razing in India which prompted tit-for-tat attacks on Hindu places of worship across Pakistan. He appointed Dassa Ram to take care of the temple but soon Dassa Ram’s entire family moved into the building, followed by some other poor Hindu families who did not have a place to live. Whenever the officials of the All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat try to shift them out of the temple, they rush to the media, complaining that their place of worship and their homes are being taken over. “These land grabbers use the fact that they belong to the Hindu community to their advantage,” says Davani. “If you tell all the media houses that you are being discriminated against because of your religion, people will, of course, have sympathy for you.” Dassa Ram’s descendents, in fact, have filed a court case against Davani and Chawla’s son Mukesh Chawla who is a minister in the Sindh cabinet. “They just want the land for the construction of hotels,” says Bhaani, Dassa Ram’s wife. The stalemate will continue until the court decides the case.
Across the road from Joseph Colony, Mohammad Iqbal runs a small eatery. His three employees, all young boys from different parts of Lahore, describe him to be so devoted to his job that he comes across as a slave-driver. “Asking the boss for an extra holiday is like asking to get a slap across your face,” says Ahmed, who has been working at the food stall for two years now. But, a day after the Joseph Colony attack, Iqbal shut down his eatery and did not reopen it for almost a month. He says he was too scared to come to work. “In those days, the police were rounding up suspects involved in the attack. If I had come to work then, I would be in jail right now,” he says.
If fear of the police was not enough trouble, Iqbal was left scarred by what he saw on that fateful Saturday morning. He was serving breakfast to his customers when he saw a mob approaching. He is not sure how many people were there in the mob; he just says they were too many to count. “As far as I could see, there were people carrying sticks and stones,” he says and recalls how he told his staff to turn off the stoves immediately, drag all the utensils and furniture inside and drop the shutters. “I don’t know anything else. I was only interested in saving my shop and my life,” says Iqbal.
But Iqbal had seen more than others because by that time, the residents of the colony had all left; women and children had been dispatched the night before and the police had chased away the men left behind. The police is said to have told Muslim workers employed in the warehouses in the area in advance to not come to work that day. Another account suggests that the police forced warehouses workers to leave an hour before the incident.
The rest of what happened on March 9, barring photographs and videos available on the internet, is hearsay. Media images show the mob setting fire to shops and houses in Joseph Colony, throwing furniture from rooftops, and celebrating their revenge on the alleged blasphemer and members of his religious community. The most disturbing photographs are those in which the mob, wielding sticks, rods and assorted pieces of broken furniture, poses for the camera with wide, beaming smiles and victory signs flashing in the foreground.While watching the videos showing the mob looting valuable and burning down whatever they could not carry away, one wonders where the police were and what they were doing to stop the mayhem. “They stood on the sidelines and watched,” says Michael.
Other residents of the colony wonder why the government did not order the rangers or the military to control the situation, if the police were unable to handle the mob. “It was not due to a lack of competence; the police stood by due to a lack of will,” says HRCP’s Yusuf. If they had the will, they could have tried to disperse the crowd by firing some teargas shells, she adds. But, according to Yusuf, this was not the first time that law enforcers had allowed their religious bias to supersede their professional duties. “Even during the riots in Gojra, the police did not fulfil their duties,” she says.
For Pastor Liaquat Masih, the police are capable of much worse than just watching a crowd on the rampage from the sidelines. Well-respected in his Isa Nagar village on the outskirts of Lahore, he doubles as a priest and a brick kiln worker along with other members of his family. His wife has developed calluses on her soles from kneading mud to make bricks. “We start work at 4 am and then take a break at noon, when the sun is too hot to bear,” she says. Their survival depends on how fast they can work. They get 500 rupees for every 1,000 bricks they knead, mould, dry and then bake. When they were younger and fitter, Liaquat and his wife could make up to 1,000 bricks in a single day. Older and always under debt, these days, they never find their earnings matching their needs.
Things were not always this bad, Liaquat laments. When he first moved closer to Lahore from a far-flung village in Punjab, he was pleasantly surprised to learn that he did not need to bother about his religious identity in the city. He was just like anyone around. But in the last five years, his religious identity has posed such problems for him that he often wishes that he could repay his loans and move back to his village. The latest source of his problems is a recent incident of robbery that occurred in Gujjumata, a village on the southern edge of Lahore. A day after the robbery, the police came to his house and took away his son, Sarwar Masih. A day later, the police came back and, this time, took away two more of his sons, Nadeem Masih and Patras Masih. “They kept them in custody for a month and tortured them every day,” Liaqat says. He had to borrow money from the owner of the kiln to bribe the police to get his sons released.
But the boys had hardly been home for a day when the police returned and took away Liaqat’s brother, Mushtaq Masih, accusing him of stealing a motorcycle. “Since then, I don’t let any of my boys sleep at home. We all sleep in separate houses because we are scared that the police may come any night and take all of us away,” says Liaqat. When Mushtaq returned home after a week in detention – but not before Liaqat had bribed the police again with money borrowed from the kiln owner — one of his arms was broken, rendering him unable to resume brick-making in order to repay the loan. “Why is every robbery that occurs in the radius of 10 kilometres [from Isa Nagar] blamed on us?” asks Mushtaq. Other residents of the village say that none of them has ever been proven to have committed a robbery, yet the police believe all of them to be thieves. Mushtaq feels the reason is their religious identity, which makes them socially vulnerable to bullying and persecution.
At a run-down police station near Gujjumata, a head constable does not want to explain why all robberies in the area are blamed on the residents of Isa Nagar. When his subordinate tries to come up with an explanation, he gets a stern look from his boss. Unable to remain silent, as soon as he moves away from the admonishing eyes of the head constable, the subordinate says, “Our bosses have to satisfy the landlords who have been robbed. We have to show them that we are doing something,” he says. “Keeping the Christians in lock-up shows the landlords that we are doing our job.”
Back at Isa Nagar, another problem has erupted. Twenty-year-old Raju who works at a nearby earthenware factory was arrested as soon as he got home. Raju’s father has come to Pastor Liaquat for advice. “They say he has an illegal gun, but we have never seen Raju with a gun,” laments his father. Liaquat offers them water and promises to help them as much as he can. “We will pray to the lord, this Sunday, to make these problems go away,” he tells Raju’s sobbing father.
There was no Joseph Colony in Lahore before 1978, when the authorities decided to relocate a small Christian settlement near Kashmiri Gate, one of the many entrances to the Walled City of Lahore. The Christian houses were seen as hampering certain development projects in the area and so the government offered the Christians a deal: if they vacated the settlement land immediately, they would get three marla (75 square yards) plots in Badami Bagh at a subsidised price of just 4,500 rupees and that too payable in monthly instalments of 100 rupees. This is how Joseph Colony came about. When the government gave the Christians the land, they were also promised that they would not be displaced again, says Rosie Marshall, who bought a plot in the colony 35 years ago. Her husband Parvez Marshall is a PMLN worker and has served a stint as a member of the union council.
Their daughter-in-law, Saadia, is devastated by the attack on the colony. “Everyone regarded me as the luckiest girl in the world because I had two houses in the colony to call my own. The one I grew up in and the one I am married into,” she says. “Now I realise how unlucky I am. I lost my entire world in one day. They burnt down both my houses.”
When the 23-year-old saw television footage of her neighbourhood in flames, she could not wait to check if her house was also part of the wreckage. But the police wouldn’t allow Saadia and her family to re-enter the colony. They told her that the danger was not yet over. After fighting her way in, she almost wished she hadn’t. When she entered her bedroom she saw that the door of her locker had been flung open and all her wedding jewellery had been taken away. The furniture had been burnt to ashes. “I was holding the ashes of the furniture my parents had bought for my wedding when other members of my family walked in,” says Saadia.
In another part of the colony, Sheedan’s family has a similar story to tell. The government has been generous in providing financial help to the residents of the colony, giving 500,000 rupees each to all married male members belonging to each household. But what about educational degrees, official documents and family photographs that were burnt away in the fire, she asks. “No government can give me back my great grandfather’s pictures. No amount of money can buy back my trust in the police and political leaders,” Sheedan says.
Her young daughter Nancy is furious with those responsible for the fact that she is now living in a house with charred walls. She is also furious with the police for allowing this to take place. And, unlike most residents of the colony, she is determined to fight back if something untoward happens again. “This time we will not run away … We may be poor and we may be non-Muslims but we can bear only so much,” she says.
In another part of central Punjab, a tiny non-Muslim community in Doda village, near Sargodha, shows how resisting to pressures from the Muslims living around them is not always possible. At the time of Partition, a few Hindu and Sikh families in the village were stopped by their local Muslim friends from leaving for India but, since then, these families have only seen many of their members becoming Muslim. On a hot June day this year, a non-Muslim resident of Doda refuses to speak to a group of visiting journalists. One of the local Muslims present on the occasion claims that he is upset with his elderly father having converted to Islam earlier that very day and his mother is bringing the whole house down with her crying and wailing.
The other problem such small non-Muslim communities living in villages in Punjab face relates to the marriage of their children. Neither the Hindus nor the Sikhs are numerous enough in these areas to be able to marry off their younger generation within the followers of their own faith. “There are many limitations in the Hindu religion regarding marriage between cousins, so it is often difficult to find suitable matches,” says Ram Prakash, a teacher in Sargodha city. As a result, many Hindu families have formed marital relations with Sikh families. Prakash himself is a Sikh married to a Hindu woman. “Intermarriages between the two communities are no longer shocking nor are they rare,” he says.It would be a sweeping statement to say that all of Pakistan’s non-Muslim citizens lead the same lives as the residents of Joseph Colony — marred by fear, persecution and discrimination. There are pockets in the country, albeit small, where religion does not play a defining role in social relationships. Balochistan’s Lasbela district is one such area where a sizeable Hindu population lives as peacefully as any community can in this part of Pakistan. “Maybe in Khuzdar and Kalat, things are bad for the Hindus but in Lasbela everything is fine,” says 19-year-old Kailash Turshan who is going to start his third year of an engineering degree this fall. To prove his point, he mentions how a number of Hindus run all kinds of businesses in Bela city – from grocery stores to vegetable shops to restaurants – and the Muslims have never had any problem in purchasing food from them.
Even in this oasis of religious harmony, there has been at least one incident which has left many unexplained questions in its wake. Ganga Ram Sharma, a Hindu businessman in Bela, was kidnapped last year and he migrated to India with his family after he was freed by his kidnappers. From the leaders of the local Hindu community to Jam Kamal, a minister of state from the Awaran-cum-Lasbela constituency, no one knows who abducted Sharma and on what terms he was allowed to return home.
Turshan remembers how the incident scared other Hindu families in Bela, with some of them fleeing to India for safety. Turshan’s paternal uncle and his family were one of the seven or eight Hindu families that left Pakistan after Sharma’s kidnapping. Even then the young boy insists that he and his family face no religious discrimination. When Sharma was abducted, the Muslims and Hindus stood together outside the Bela Press Club in protest, he points out. “If we were not living in harmony, would the Muslims have supported our cause?” he asks.
Kamal, whose family once ruled the princely state of Lasbela, agrees with Turshan. He doesn’t believe that Sharma’s kidnapping had anything to do with the businessman’s religion. “The security situation in Balochistan is terrible and all kinds of crimes are on the rise here,” he explains. “I think the kidnapping was purely done for money. It was not meant to scare Lasbela’s minority community.” According to Kamal, Lassis, the main residents of the area, are not aggressive by nature and that is a major reason why the Hindus here have never faced any hostility.
Another region relatively safe for non-Muslims is Sindh’s Tharparkar district. The only complaints that one hears here are about occasional incidents of Hindu girls getting abducted and forcibly converted to Islam. “But look at the numbers of girls abducted in Thar,” says Dr Sono Kangharani, a member of the Pakistan Dalit Network, “and it is almost nothing in comparison to hundreds of abductions that take place in upper Sindh.”
The Arbabs, who have been the area’s most influential political family for many decades now and are the biggest – or perhaps the only real – landlords in the district, lost all but one seat that they contested in the 2013 general election. According to Lachhman Tharri, a former journalist based in Mithi, the headquarters of Tharparkar district, one of the reasons for the Arbabs’ defeat was an anti-Hindu pamphlet Arbab Ghulam Rahim was responsible for distributing before the election. “The pamphlet described Hindus as infidels; it read that voting for a Hindu candidate was the same as going against Islam,” says Lachhman. This did not sit well with the Hindus or the Muslims in the district.
Kangharani says one reason why Tharparkar does not experience any religious violence is because it has almost as many non-Muslims as it has Muslims. In almost half of Tharparkar’s 22,000 villages, the Hindus own their own farmland, he says. In contrast, non-Muslims in upper parts of Sindh and entire Punjab are not privileged enough to own any land of their own.
Villagers in Tharparkar are surprised when asked if they get along well with people who do not profess the same religion as they do. Their immediate reaction is to question why they would not get along well with other human beings. Lakjee, an upper-caste Hindu who lives in a small village 30 kilometres from Mithi, says his parrah (traditional Tharri housing enclave) is surrounded by Muslim parrahs from all sides and they all live as brothers. “A long time ago, our forefathers wouldn’t eat with Muslims, but with the spread of education we have realised that the concept of untouchability is unnecessary,” he says.
The Muslims from the nearby Sangrasi Jotar village echo his views. Even though a Muslim maulvi comes to their village every now and then to preach that they should not share cooking and eating utensils with non-Muslims, according to a young boy, no one listens to him. “He comes, he preaches and goes back. And things stay just the way they are,” he says laughing.
Perhaps the most important factor behind Tharparkar’s interfaith harmony is its harsh climate and rugged terrain. “Just think about it. In a land where potable water is a luxury and regular meals a rarity, who will have time to worry about Hindu-Muslim differences?” asks Haji Muhammad, a lecturer at Mithi’s local university. “The people of Thar are so busy pulling out water from 60-feet-deep wells for their daily use, that they don’t have time to pick fights with their neighbours.”
Muhammad does not think that things will change in the future. He is confident that the harsh terrain of Thar will protect its residents from any uninvited outsiders. “Every now and then, religious extremists who pose to be maulvis come to Tharparkar and they try to preach their version of Islam to our people,” says the university teacher. “But the people here have no acceptance for extremism.” He tells the story of one Maulvi Qasim in Mithi who always ended his Friday sermon praying for the well-being of both the Hindus and the Muslims. “Once some maulvis affiliated with the Tablighi Jamaat (a group of roving preachers), who were visiting the city, heard Qasim pray and asked him why he was praying for the non-believers,” says Muhammad. “Qasim simply asked the maulvis to leave the city.”
There, however, are occasional news reports about girls being abducted by Muslim landlords or religious leaders and being forced into marriage. But Lachhman says that this problem is not specific to the Hindu girls. “If the girl is a Hindu, the kidnapper will convert her and then marry her; if she is a Muslim, then he does not even need to convert her,” he says. In at least one instance, the Muslims sided with the Hindus when a Muslim boy abducted a Hindu girl in Kerati village, says Kanghar Singh, a high school teacher in Islamkot, who is also a native of the same village. “They told the boy’s family that they would have to give a Muslim girl in exchange for the abducted Hindu girl,” says Singh. The Muslim boy, in the end, was forced to return the girl to her family.
This partly explains why forced conversions of Hindu girls after abduction are rare in Tharparkar, at least as compared to Ghotki in northern Sindh, where the politically and spiritually powerful family of Pir Bharchundi Sharif takes a lead role in the phenomenon by providing protection to Muslim boys who kidnap Hindu girls to convert and marry them. It was the 2012 abduction, conversion and marriage of a Hindu girl, Rinkle Kumari, which brought the activities of the pir into national and international limelight. Abdul Haq alias Mian Mitho, the custodian of the Bharchundi Sharif shrine and then a National Assembly member belonging to the Pakistan Peoples Party, took pride in claiming to the media that he was helping Hindu girls in the area to convert and marry Muslim boys.
What Mian Mitho is to Ghotki, Pir Ayub Jan Sirhindi is to Umerkot, the district adjacent to Tharparkar. From Diplo to Chhachhro, whenever an instance of forced conversion is discussed, there is almost always a mention of Sirhindi and his dargah in Samaro village. Most of the Hindu girls, who disappear from the villages and cities of the desert, somehow end up in Samaro, under Sirhindi’s protection. In the last year alone, he claims to have converted approximately 1,000 Hindus – both men and women – to Islam.
The history of Sirhindi’s ancestors goes back to the time of the Mughal emperor Akbar. When Akbar began propagating this own syncretic religion in 1592, Sirhindi’s forefather, Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi, stood against it in what is now Indian Punjab. After the Partition, Sirhindi’s family moved to Peshawar, and then Kandahar, but eventually his father settled in Umerkot.
Sirhindi first gained international recognition in 2007 when Deepa Kumari, a 17-year-old Hindu girl, went missing from Islamkot. Deepa’s parents, much like Rinkle’s, created a lot of uproar about their missing daughter, claiming that her Muslim teacher had abducted her and taken her to Sirhindi’s place in Samaro. The case became so well known that the then president Pervez Musharraf took note of it. “Musharraf demanded that Deepa immediately be returned to her family, but I said register a case and follow the legal procedure,” says Sirhindi in a telephone conversation with the Herald. When Deepa was presented in a court, she stated that she had fallen in love with her tutor and gone with him to Samaro to embrace Islam in order to marry him.
“Over the years, many young girls and old women have come to me and asked to be taken into the fold of Islam,” says Sirhindi. “Before we convert them, we do complete background checks to assure ourselves that these women are acting on their own free will.” He claims that he has never converted any Hindu forcibly. “All the uproar created in the media is either due to the Indian agents who run newspapers or by hypocrites who want to give Islam a bad name.”To prove his claim that the media is biased in the coverage of his activities, Sirhindi says that Korean Christian missionaries have set up boarding schools all the way from Badin to Tharparkar and have converted more than 1,000 families in 2012 alone, and yet, no media outlet ever speaks about them. According to him, the missionaries have been sent to Sindh by Pope Benedict XVI to convert local Hindus to Christianity. “They choose the poorest Hindu families and then tempt them with an offer of a better life,” says Sirhindi.
Kangharani confirms that the Korean missionaries have been active in the area for the last five years. They have set up educational institutions in various cities including Badin, Nagarparkar, Mirpurkhas and Sanghar. “These missionaries don’t focus on individuals — they convert entire villages,” says Kangharani. “They must have converted 200 to 250 [Hindu] villages in the last two-and-a-half years.” Although everyone is aware of the Koreans’ existence, no Muslim or Hindu leader in the areas where they operate has, so far, tried to talk to them about their activities. “The missionaries are too scared of their Christian leaders to share anything about their work,” says Allah Baksh Arisar, Dawn’s local correspondent in Umerkot.
This is not the first time in this part of the world that villagers are embracing the Christian faith on a large scale. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there were scores of villages in Punjab where people belonging to the Chandala tribe embraced Christianity in droves. The Chandalas are one of the indigenous tribes of Punjab who were kept out of the Indo-Aryan caste system in order to force them under political, social and economic subjugation. According to John O Brien, the author of The Unconquered People, a book that traces the history of the Chandalas, their subjugation was the main reason behind their mass conversion to Christianity.
Between 1901 and 1914, almost 14,000 Chandalas stepped into the fold of Christianity. By 1947, this group had developed a new identity for themselves as Punjabi Christians. By then, they had also succeeded in concretising this identity through developments such as translating the English Psalms into versified Punjabi for communal singing and the addition of the appellation “Masih” after their names.
For one such Masih, by the name of Naeem, the attack on Joseph Colony proved that the subjugation of his people is not over, even though almost a hundred years have passed since their conversion to Christianity. That their political and social status remains as lowly as it ever was is manifested in the Punjab government’s reconstruction plans for their houses. The workers that come to fix their houses have applied plaster on the outer surface of the walls – which have been weakened, and even split, by the fire – and then, they painted them in bright colours, especially the facades of the houses, to make them seem brand new from the outside. Whenever Naeem tried to explain to the builders that plastering the weakened structures was not a sustainable solution, he would be told to stop creating a ruckus, otherwise they would not even carry out the plastering and the painting.
In the absence of proper reconstruction at the government’s expense, Naeem and many of his neighbours have started doing it with their own money. After paying for the construction material and defraying the labour costs, he says, he will have nothing left from the 500,000 rupees the government handed to him as compensation. Apart from the additional financial burden the reconstruction has put on his financial resources, it is also taking time and is forcing his family members to squeeze their daily lives into even tinier corners of their small houses, strewn with heaps of construction material. “Three months have passed since the mob attack but my house is still under construction,” Naeem tells the Herald in June.
Behind him, construction workers can be seen building the roof of his house.
Residents of Joseph Colony say their houses were set alight by a chemical they identify as phosphorous. No one has conducted any investigation, legal or scientific, to ascertain whether the chemical used is phosphorous or something else but the local Christians seem to be quite familiar with it. “This is the same chemical that was used in Gojra and Shanti Nagar as well as when a church in Mardan was torched earlier this year,” says Michael.
Before the reconstruction could even begin in Joseph Colony, the members of another Christian community living in Francisabad, a huge all-Christian settlement a few kilometres to the south of Gujranwala city, faced the dire prospects of a mob attack. On April 2, 2013, scores of Muslims from a nearby village of Naroki came rushing into Francisabad, accusing a local Christian boy of committing blasphemy. The real reason for their anger is said to be a dispute between a Christian boy and a Muslim boy, both sharing a ride on a motorcycle rickshaw, over what music the vehicle’s driver should play. Unlike in Joseph Colony, the mob encountered local Christians ready to retaliate. Some Christian boys fired shots in the air from the safety of their houses to scare off the Muslim attackers, says Romana Bashir, the director of Christian Study Centre, an inter-faith harmony group based in Islamabad. Media reports and other accounts from the area suggest that timely and effective response by the police was another factor that averted the possibility of a repeat of what had happened at Joseph Colony.
Why did the police act so effectively in Francisabad but only stand by in Joseph Colony? Did someone bribe the police in Lahore to stay as silent spectators; did someone exert any political influence for the same purpose? Iqtidar of King’s College speculates that the residents of Sheikhabad, who are mostly daily-wage workers, are neither rich nor powerful so they could not have bribed or influenced the police. The only people in the area with means and money to do that are the owners of the numerous warehouses around Joseph Colony. The might have wanted the local Christians to leave the colony so that they could expand their businesses there but there is no evidence to link them so directly with the attack, even when some local Muslim community leaders insist that the attackers mostly were the employees of the warehouses who mostly belonged to areas outside Lahore.
HRCP’s Yusuf, however, is convinced that the police’s motive in allowing the rioting to take place at Joseph Colony was religious rather than financial or political. “The sympathies of the police usually lie with the Muslims,” she says. “Over the years, prejudices against non-Muslims have deepened in the society and this is visible at all levels — from the media to the judiciary to the lower ranks of the police.” The allegations of blasphemy, in particular, arouse emotions very quickly, says Yusuf.
Bashir’s experience of working on peace and reconciliation between the Muslims and the Christians in Pakistan seems to endorse this point of view. She tells the story of a man who was a member of the mob that attacked Shanti Nagar. During a reconciliation session, years later, he narrated how he ran from his village for a good 20 kilometres to reach and attack Shanti Nagar after a local maulvi announced that a Christian had insulted the Prophet of Islam. The police officials in Lahore could very well have felt the same way after hearing that Saawan Masih had committed blasphemy.
The traumatic impact of their failure to protect Joseph Colony is still being felt many months after the attack. Sixteen-year-old Sumya, whose father Mansha Masih runs a paan stall, is so traumatised that she cannot sleep in her Joseph Colony house any longer. Fearing that the mob can return, she leaves the colony every evening to sleep at her uncle’s house near Jail Road. “After seeing what we saw, anyone could lose their mind,” says Sumya. “I wish we, too, were burnt down in the fire. That would have been easier than what we are going through now.”
Maham Javaid travels across the country to find out about stories of violence and persecution from Lahore to Lasbela.
Almost a month has passed since the May 11 elections yet protest rallies have been organised throughout the country by various political parties against the Election Commission of Pakistan, holding it responsible for failing to deliver free and fair elections. Herald takes a detailed look whether the accusations hold merit or not?
A day after President Asif Ali Zardari signed the Investigation for Fair Trial Act into statute books on February 20, he told a delegation of the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations that the Act would help in quick and effective prosecution of terror suspects. The law regularises, legalises and makes admissible in the court of law evidence collected by modern techniques, including audio and video recordings, still photography, documents, papers, emails, text messages and phone call records among other things. It will work on two levels: it seeks to make judicial proceedings fairer by granting law-enforcement agencies the means through which they can collect evidence in a timely and lawful manner; and it keeps a check on the arbitrary powers of surveillance that intelligence agencies have been abusing and misusing.
The debate regarding the Investigation for Fair Trial Act has centred on the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy versus the rising threat of crime and insecurity. Here, the Herald steps beyond these two points to explore how the law has come about and whether it will be effective in achieving its stated goals.
“The Act is aimed at tackling terrorism.”
YES, WITH SOME RESERVATIONS
Members of parliament have hailed the Act as a major step in Pakistan’s fight against terrorism. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has hailed the law as a demonstration of Pakistan’s resolve against terrorism whereas a jubilant member of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) says that “the need of the hour is to prevent terrorism”. But the law itself states that its objectives are to “prevent the threat or any attempt, to carry out scheduled offences” and it goes on to list five scheduled offences which include offences under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, and offences under the Prevention of Anti-National Activities Act, 1974, among others.
The difference in the perception of the law and its stated intent has led some opposition politicians, such as PMLN’s Anusha Rehman, to claim that its application should have been limited to only those suspected of terrorism. Sana Saleem, an executive director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy, research and policy organisation, has a similar view: “The law should only be restricted to terror suspects,” she says, otherwise, the phone tapping and electronic eavesdropping mandated by law could endanger the fundamental rights of all citizens.
But Tasneem M Noorani, a former federal interior secretary, believes that terrorism is not the only crime which needs to be checked. “There are many offences which are heinous but do not fall under terrorism and need to be curbed,” he tells the Herald and explains that the offences listed in the Act are all, in some way or form, related to terrorism. “All the offences the law has listed make sense because they are interconnected: prohibiting private armies, banning anti-national activities and disposing off arms are all means to curb terrorism,” he says.
“The unanimous and speedy passage of the Act is an example of responsible legislation.”
ON THE SURFACE, YES
When the Act was first presented in the National Assembly, Leader of Opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a PMLN legislator, was quick to declare it a “black law”. Even the ruling coalition partner, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), had some reservations. The party’s legislators, in particular, appeared to express the concern that security and intelligence agencies could misuse the law for political victimisation, especially since the Act fails to define the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ in narrow terms. The bill was eventually passed into law by the National Assembly after multiple amendments. “We inserted many changes and now the law seems more transparent,” says Rehman.
One amendment which the PMLN claims credit for is the elimination of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) from the list of organisations empowered to obtain warrants for intercepting communications. “In the first draft [of the Act], 16 agencies had the authority; after the amendments, only six agencies do,” says Noorani. Authorised agencies now comprise the Inter-Services Intelligence, the Intelligence Bureau, the three military intelligence agencies and the police. The FIA was knocked off the list because it is “not necessarily a forefront agency for crime control,” says Noorani.
The amendments that transformed the “black law” to a seemingly bearable law include provisions for punishing agency personnel who misuse the authority that the Act invests in them. Punishment could go up to five years of imprisonment or a fine of 10 million rupees or both. While the opposition legislators can claim that they were able to get the government to accept as many as 32 amendments to the Act, some of them are still worried that the new law can be misused. “ Even after our amendments … this law must be used with care and consideration,” says Rehman.
Not everyone, however, believes that all the amendments sponsored by the opposition are good. “I don’t see how reduction in the period of issuance of warrants [from 180 days, originally, to 60 days] is an achievement because there is still a clause for renewal of the warrant, and there is no limit to the number of renewals an officer can seek,” says technology rights activist and lawyer, Nighat Dad. Barrister Zafarullah Khan, a Supreme Court lawyer and head of his own Watan Party, continues to describe the Act as a blatant violation of privacy rights.
With so many reservations about the Act, how was it passed without a single ‘no’ in the final voice vote in the National Assembly? According to a PMLN legislator, who chooses to remain anonymous: “We were told by the government that the law must be passed as quickly as possible. They [the government] said that terrorists were slipping through its fingers and it needed this law to convict them.” This may also explain why the ruling party accepted amendments by other parties, including the opposition, in almost no time.
“The process of gaining a warrant to intercept communications is designed to prevent misuse.”
In order to obtain a warrant of surveillance, an applicant from the authorised agency must go through a number of procedures. The first is that the personnel of that agency must first notify an officer of grade 20 or above in their own department of their suspicions regarding a possible terror suspect. If the authorising officer deems the preliminary evidence strong enough to warrant interception, he will forward a written application to the interior minister. Once the interior minister’s permission has been obtained, the officer may apply to a High Court judge for a warrant; if the judge is convinced that there is a reasonable possibility of the suspect attempting a scheduled offence, he will issue a warrant in his chambers, in the presence of the officer.
Some experts regard the process long-winded but others see it as being helpful in preventing the arbitrary application of surveillance powers. “Approval from the interior ministry is asking for too much. It is one of the slowest ministries in the country, and there will be months of delay,” says one security analyst who does not wish to disclose his name. Saroop Ijaz, lawyer and human rights activist, views the situation differently. “The process is not too tedious; it is careful and the fact that there is a judge involved is the saving grace of this law.”
There is, however, a snag in the process — the interim warrant. “The interim warrant can be issued if there is a time constraint and a reasonable threat of an offence,” says Ijaz. It becomes applicable when the agency personnel believe that no time can be wasted in meeting judges; they can begin surveillance of the suspect, after which they are granted seven days in which to make their case to the judge.
Barrister Khan criticises the interim warrant on the grounds that it would be too easy to misuse it. “When an officer arrests someone without a warrant, they only have 24 hours to present their case to the judge. Why does the interim warrant [under the Act] allow seven days?”
Ijaz is also critical of the interim warrant but adds some qualifications. “It is unacceptable in principle”, but, “in dire situations, when agency personnel believe that a bomb may go off and kill people and time is of the essence, foregoing a regular warrant may be understandable,” he says. But he cautions: “If you allow these exceptions, you put yourself on a very slippery slope.”
Apparently, the government has tried to institute checks and balances in the surveillance process but many loopholes in the law still remain which may allow its abuse and misuse.
“The Investigation for Fair Trial Act is fair, because it is based
on western models.”
One of the government’s main justifications for proposing the Investigation for Fair Trial Act was that existing laws didn’t adequately provide for, and regulate the use of, advanced investigative technology. Frequent examples of the use of comparable techniques and procedures employed by countries such as the US, UK and India – especially in the wake of 9/11 – were quoted by lawmakers to make their point. And there is a lot of debate about the extent to which the Pakistani law is modeled on the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).
Manzar Zaidi, a security analyst, says that there are some major and fundamental differences between the two laws. For one, Zaidi points out in an article published in daily Dawn, on February 19, information obtained through the interception of communications is not admissible as evidence in court in the UK whereas, in the case of Pakistan, allowing such evidence to be admissible in court is the primary purpose behind the passage of the law.
Secondly, Zaidi explains, the power to issue warrants is used sparingly in the UK. Rehman of PMLN echoes his view, saying that in the last four years only 4,000 surveillance warrants have been issued in the UK. Pakistani experts have little confidence that local intelligence agencies will use the law in a sparing manner. As Ijaz says, “Historically, our agencies have been known not to use information in the noblest of ways.”
Another important distinction between the Pakistani and British laws, as pointed out by Zaidi, is that the courts in the latter case are not involved in obtaining warrants, while both courts and the interior ministry are involved in the former case. The biggest and most important difference, however, is that there is no concept of an interim warrant in the British law.
Not everyone, though, believes that a departure from the British template is necessarily a negative thing. Babar Sattar, a High Court lawyer based in Islamabad, believes it is a mistake for lawmakers to ignore a country’s political and cultural environment. He also says the UK’s intelligence agencies, in contrast to those in Pakistan, are structured in a way that makes laws difficult to misuse. “There are so many basic differences in the way our countries work. For example, in the West, powers were given and taken as and when the security situation demands but in Pakistan, once you delegate authority to security agencies it is almost impossible to claim it back.”
“The Act will be effective in combating terrorism by increasing the possibility
NOT ON ITS OWN
Although there are no officially verifiable figures for the conviction rate in terrorism cases, there is general agreement that the numbers are dismally low. “Currently, we have one per cent conviction rate in terrorism cases,” says Noorani.
People such as Zaidi take the view that allowing more types of evidence to become admissible may actually reduce the number of convictions even further, given that it could increase the length and complexity of trials. Others see it entirely differently. “As long as traditional evidence is not overlooked in lieu of this law, the system is safe and may even improve,” says Supreme Court lawyer Salman Akram Raja. Noorani is even more optimistic: “The admissibility of this type of evidence in court can only strengthen the process of prosecution,” he says and adds, “If the investigator is honest, this law has a chance.” Opposition politicians also agree. “If the law is not misused, it could affect the status quo in a positive way,” says Rehman.
However, others, say that the law in itself is not the solution. “This law is not the correct solution. It should not be used as a substitute for a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy,” says Ijaz. “It’s true that this evidence could prove to be the missing X factor needed to prosecute criminals, but the real, long-term solution lies in empowering the police and empowering the National Counter Terrorism Authority,” he adds.
“There are better ways to catch terrorists,” says Barrister Khan. “This Act is regressive, taking us back in time because it violates the Constitution.” What is more important is that lawyers train the police in how to gather evidence. If prosecutors and the police work together, there would be no need for such stringent laws, he says.
Pakistan’s ban on YouTube has now entered its third month and is showing no signs of desisting. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked the website under orders from Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf “in order to ensure that Pakistan’s religious sentiments were not hurt.”
The PTA shut down YouTube on September 17, 2012, three days after nationwide riots began against an anti-Islam video on the website. The riots took 26 lives, injured over 200 people and caused 76 billion rupees worth of economic loss.
Here the Herald takes a look at the dilemma faced by YouTube: on the one hand, the government will not allow it to be resumed unless the contentious video is removed; on the other, Google (which owns YouTube) has stated that removing the video is against its policy.
First, there was only a trailer
It all began when a 14-minute trailer for an anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims, was uploaded on YouTube in the first week of September; a few days later violent protests broke out across the Muslim world. In Libya, armed protesters stormed the American consulate in Benghazi and killed four members of staff, including the American ambassador. Google immediately blocked access to the video in Libya and neighbouring Egypt, which was also witnessing huge protests against the video.
As violence started erupting in Pakistan, the government wrote to Facebook and Google to remove the video from the Internet — or at least from Pakistani servers. Facebook complied within 24 hours; Google did not respond. This prompted the government to slap a blanket ban on YouTube.
Many believe that the government should have engaged better with Google on the issue. “The [YouTube] ban does not mean much to Google, but it affects Pakistani internet users very deeply so it is our [government’s] job to convince Google [to remove the video],” says Shahzad Ahmad, the head of Bytes for All, an organisation that monitors internet freedom.
Google does present an explanation for the selective blocking of the video, although it does not convince many. The company’s statement, issued on September 12, 2012 said, “the video … is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube.” But then it added that the company has temporarily restricted access to the video in “Libya and Egypt … given the very difficult situation in both countries.”
Next came the puzzling backstories
The question, then, that many in Pakistan are asking is: why did the company not apply the same yardstick for Pakistan where protests, and resulting violence, were more deadly than in most other Muslim countries? “It boils down to no reason other than discrimination,” says a PTA official who does not wish to disclose his name. “Corporations, such as Google, only care about profits and since we accrue no profit to them, we mean nothing to them,” he adds.
Sources in the industry say that Google blocked the video in Libya and Egypt mainly in response to severe criticism from internet users in the country that is both its largest market and its base – the US – over the killing of the American officials. The company acknowledged that banning the video was an “extraordinary” step and in fact at the Seventh Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan its officials admitted that allowing access to the video in the politically charged Middle Eastern countries was a mistake.
What becomes confounded in such accusations and clarifications is whether it is legally possible to block a video on YouTube in Pakistan. Google can only take Pakistan’s request for blocking the video into consideration, if the country has a localised version of YouTube. Since both India and Indonesia have a local YouTube version, they were able to make the video inaccessible quickly. The reason is that a localised YouTube follows local web content laws applicable to a specific country whereas the global version follows global guidelines as practised by Google.
The company, however, has clearly failed to implement its guidelines across the board in this case. Internet users in Libya, Egypt and Pakistan all use a non-localised, global version of YouTube. Why did Google block the video in the other two countries but not in Pakistan? “If Google could break its rules for Libya and Egypt then why can’t [those] rules be bent for us?” asks an official at the Federal Ministry of Information Technology in Islamabad who does not want to be named.
A web of laws
This raises another question: why has Pakistan failed to get a localised version of YouTube, especially when anti-Islam web content has been such a recurring issue in the country since 2006?
Some industry insiders suggest that the reason behind Google’s reluctance in localising YouTube in Pakistan is political instability. “For Google, Pakistan is another Afghanistan,” says a South Asia representative of the company who prefers not to disclose his name.
When Eric Schmidt, president of Google, visited Pakistan earlier this year, he was told that Pakistan can offer the company a huge avenue for investment. The government was not off the mark in this assessment as the country has 23 million Internet users, according to the PTA. As a follow-up to his visit, a 10-person Google delegation came to Pakistan to assess the situation in September. “I could see that they were finally viewing Pakistan as a viable investment opportunity,” says Badar Khushnood, Google’s sole consultant for Pakistan. The protests against the video erupted while the delegation was still in Pakistan. “They witnessed the violence with their own eyes. I don’t think they will be back for a while,” he adds.
On the other hand, digital media agencies such as Digitz and media-buying houses such as Starcom explain that the real reason behind Google’s unwillingness to localise in the country is the fact that Pakistan’s digital media market is simply not large enough. According to Babar Anis, a former deputy group head at Starcom, Pakistan’s total advertising industry is worth 500 million US dollars but digital advertising is worth only 10 million US dollars. “If the digital advertising market is so small, why should Google bother investing in us?” he asks.
Zeeshan Sharfi, the chief executive officer of Digitz, also puts the size of the digital component at only one to two per cent of the total advertising market. This is further split between Facebook, Yahoo, Hotmail and Google, he says. In turn, he adds, “YouTube receives about half of what Google gets.”
The Middle Eastern countries, in contrast, have huge digital advertisement markets. “It is 10-15 per cent [of their media industry],” says Anis. So even though they are ‘politically instable’, YouTube and Google have to pander to the diktats of the market there.
Furthermore, Pakistan also needs to streamline its myriad laws and regulations governing web content and online technologies. As things stand today, the country does not have a coherent set of cyber laws. At one end of the spectrum, there is no law covering cyber crime after the Pakistan Electronic Criminal Ordinance lapsed more than a year ago. But, on the other, there are laws which are contradictory and confusing — while one of them guarantees freedom of speech, another puts severe restrictions on it and both can be applicable to web content. Similarly, some relevant laws exist but they never get implemented. There is, for instance, a law to protect intellectual property rights but its enforcement mechanism is weak to the extent of being non-existent.
In the absence of unambiguous and enforceable cyber laws, the PTA employs Article 19 of the Constitution to decide what to ban. “There is no law for content regulation — all we know is that no video or website which is against the ‘glory of Islam’ should be allowed,” says an official at the PTA who did not prefer to disclose his name. But what exactly constitutes “glory of Islam” remains undefined.
The Ministry of Information Technology, on the other hand, does feel there is no need to explain such generic terms as “glory of Islam”. “It is quite clear what is blasphemous and what is not,” says Amir Tariq Zaman Khan, the acting secretary of the ministry and the head of the inter-ministerial committee responsible for monitoring web content.
But this inter-departmental wrangling over definitions – or lack thereof – can easily scupper the chances of technology companies allowing themselves to come under Pakistani laws. “How can we expect YouTube to localise itself [in such a situation],” says Nighat Dad, the founder of Digital Rights, an organisation which promotes internet freedom.
Myriam Boublil, head of communications and public affairs for Google Southeast Asia, clearly supports this point of view. In an email response to the Herald’s queries, she says that offering local versions of YouTube takes time because “we research laws and build relationships with local content creators. Regulatory mechanisms are another consideration. Eventually, we hope to be localised wherever regulation permits,” she adds.
There were some losers
As the case stands, with Pakistan being a miniscule Internet advertising market, Google does not lose enough money from the blockade to start worrying about it. “Google does not lose out when [Pakistan] bans one of its websites [such as YouTube],” says Ahmad. “It is the country itself which will suffer,” he says.
Google refuses to comment on the financial aspect, making it impossible to assess whether or not it is suffering because of the ban. But a host of YouTube-dependent users are losing out — niche-music bands such as Poor Rich Boy who depended on YouTube to share their songs and videos; students from Virtual University of Pakistan who used the website to watch online lectures; news websites such as Dawn.com that used YouTube to upload and share their documentaries. Regular internet users also suffer as they are unable to watch their favourite religious, political and entertainment programmes.
And an obvious villain
Banning YouTube, however, could well be the symptom of the illness called social, political and religious censorship which manifests itself in many ways. “Already there are scores of Baloch and Sindhi nationalist websites which have been blocked under government orders,” says Dad. With the election right around the corner, the government may be tempted to ban more websites and may be using the anti-Islam video as an excuse to do just that, she says.
Ahmad also agrees. “I feel the ban on YouTube is just a taste of what we are about to experience nearer to the upcoming election when the government will crack down on social media,” he says.
When PTA officials say they are trying to “find a permanent technical solution” to block “blasphemous and indecent videos” activists such as Dad and Ahmad are given cause for greater worry. The authority, under orders from the Ministry of Information Technology, is developing software to monitor the uploading of content on social media forums and filter anti-Islamic content. “This is pretty much the same software as used in Iran or China,” explains a PTA official.
As in the case for these two countries, this software may also be used for filtering political content. Kamran Ali, member legal of the Ministry of Information Technology, agrees that content-filtering software is vulnerable to abuse. “Imagine, if there is an election and the ruling party [through such software] clamps down on the opposition in the virtual world ,” he thinks out aloud.
Whether such fears become a reality or not, there is no will at the official level to create a financially conducive and legally clear atmosphere for digital media. The government certainly has no incentive to allow a greater institutionalisation of web content regulation and facilitate the growth of digital media market. And without these two factors Google and YouTube will certainly feel no need to cater to the sensibilities and sensitivities of Pakistanis.
No end in sight
When Pakistan blocked YouTube in 2008 and 2010 over similar anti-Islam videos, Google eventually threw in the towel and removed the videos. This time round, it seems the company does not have the inclination to budge, having already turned down an unprecedented request from the White House to remove the video. Perhaps this is because the company does not want to send the signal that violent objections over any real or perceived insult to any group of people can force the removal of the content, thereby compromising the freedom of speech which is at the core of phenomenal growth enjoyed by websites such as YouTube.
But the government, too, seems to be in a bind. It has to block an entire website to deny access to one single video. “Our predicament is easy to understand, we cannot allow the website to be accessed if the blasphemous video is not going to be removed and we do not have the expertise to solely remove one video,” explains Ali.
Striking up a conversation with Bushra Ansari is easy — she loves to talk. But she struggled with words when an American couple seated next to her on a recent long haul flight asked her how she spent her time in Pakistan. For a while, she was stumped. After some reflection, she responded: “I am an artist.” “Oh, that’s lovely! What do you like to paint?” pat came the next question. Bushra erupted into her characteristic full-throated laughter, knowing words wouldn’t do the trick this time. She zipped out her Ipad and began showing the Americans video clips featuring her varied talents — as an actor, a comedian, a playwright, a television show host and a mimic.
For over three decades, Bushra has been a constant fixture in the Pakistani media industry. Throughout her long and varied career, she has firmly held her audience’s interest, no mean feat considering that many of her television co-stars from the 1980s and 1990s have either faded away or no longer receive enough opportunities to act. Uzma Gilani, Ruhi Bano, Khalida Riyasat – three great television actresses who started their careers around the same time as Bushra – now live only in the memories of their ageing fans, while she continues to move from strength to strength.
One possible reason for her longevity at the top of television in the country could be her ability to work in different genres with equal ease. While the older generation remembers Bushra as Jahan Ara Begam, the caustic wife of a retired civil servant in the Pakistan Television (PTV) classic Aangan Terha, or her entertaining parodies of Salma Agha, Tahira Syed and Nur Jahan in Showtime, the younger people identify her as the vivacious Faisalabadi designer Saima Chaudhry in Geo Television Network’s Aayegi Baraat series or the dominating mother-in-law in Hum TV’s Bilqis Kaur and Mera Naseeb. “If you’re not a good storyteller, your acting will not have the required emotions, and if you’re not a good dancer, then you won’t have the poise that the screen requires. This is why successful stars, such as Bushra, try to push their boundaries and explore all their talents,” senior television actor Samina Peerzada says while explaining the eclectic nature of Bushra’s talents.
The other reason could be her ability to maintain a balance between her career and her home. She did not give up one for the other; in fact, she balanced the two in such a manner that she could give time to both without any regrets. At home, she is like any other Pakistani woman, for being a star has not saved her from facing the mundane monotonies of life.
When I catch up with her at her apartment in a swanky Karachi high-rise on a late summer day, the place is aflutter with activity. Her mother and an aunt are visiting from Lahore, the cook is pestering her for ideas about lunch, the maid is trying to make an escape without finishing her work and Bushra is fretting about how she might be required to babysit her grandchildren. Within minutes, she sorts everything out — her guests are plied with tea and biscuits, the cook and the maid are given stern instructions, and a quick telephonic conversation with her daughter concludes that Bushra’s babysitting services will not be needed until later in the day. That such dexterity should have helped her survive for so long in an industry where turnover rates are quite high, if not downright staggering, is hardly surprising.
Seated beside me in black pants and an oversized shirt, Bushra wears furrows of worry on her make-up -free face as marks of a constant struggle to juggle time between family and career. But an aura of grace surrounds her as she begins to talk about her past and present, a grace that could only have been produced through a profound sense of achievement.
Bushra was born in a talented household. Her father, Ahmad Bashir, was a left wing writer and journalist, and his sisters were also involved in creative fields. One of them, Parvin Atif, is a well known short story writer in Urdu. But instead of following in the footsteps of one of her illustrious relatives, Bushra imbibed one thing or another from each of them, mixing it with her own creative talent to become what she is presently known as — an actor par excellence, a comedian endowed with great wit, a writer with flair and a television host with a distinctive style.
This hasn’t been easy since her father – though himself a one-time film director – was apprehensive about what society would think if “his beautiful daughters” started to appear on television. “The very idea of acting in a drama serial was sacrilegious in our household because most storylines had love scenes and our father would never allow his unmarried daughters to be a part of such dramas,” says Sumbul, one of Bushra’s three sisters. At the age of nine, Bushra, along with her mother, had to sneak out of her house without her father’s permission to give and pass an audition for a PTV music show Kalyon Ki Mala.
The change came when she met television director Iqbal Ansari and the two decided to get married. The marriage came along with a tacit agreement that Bushra could act as long as it didn’t interfere with her domestic duties. When she talks about her early years of marriage, it is mostly about how she would do everything expected of a desi housewife, tending to the needs of her two daughters and husband, before being able to make it to the set of a television play. “In the first 10 years of my marriage, I was so busy with my family that I was part of a meagre six plays,” Bushra says, without even a hint of bitterness. Her family, in return, provided her artistic opportunities which others might not have received. She made her first television appearance in a serial called Gharaunde, which was directed by her husband. Her first serial as a scriptwriter, Neeli Dhoop, telecast in the mid-1990s; was directed by her daughter Nariman Ansari.
Bushra first won critical acclaim in Aangan Terha, a social satire on Pakistan in the 1980s. While her portrayal of a sardonic housewife, constrained by economic difficulties, was outstanding, people also lapped up the play for its subtle critique of the army and the martial law regime of Ziaul Haq. She recalls those old days with mixed emotions — nostalgic about PTV’s glory days and proud of having worked with such legendary directors as Muhammad Nisar Husain aka MNH, Mohsin Ali and Shahzad Khalil, she also remembers how she would constantly run between her home and the set to ensure that both her family and her directors would receive her best.
And they surely have. Even at the ripe age of 56, she is acting, writing scripts and hosting a cookery show besides ensuring that her husband receives fresh meals everyday and that her daughters receive her active help and advice in coping with pregnancies and rearing children. For Bushra, all this has been taxing, just as it would be for any other individual. “Because of all the stress, there is always this sense of urgency in my mind. Sometimes, I go to sleep at night and wake up feeling even more tired, because all night my brain has been buzzing with creative ideas,” she says. “However, the show must go on.”
Scriptwriting is a relatively less known aspect of Bushra’s life, perhaps because it is a later addition to a career that started eons ago. Her first script, Neeli Dhoop, focuses on a middle-aged widow who devotes her life to her daughter, but does not in return receive the same kind of attention. Its overarching theme is the status of widows in Pakistan and the double standards people adopt towards women. Since Neeli Dhoop, despite their different storylines, all her scripts have one common factor — she has consistently highlighted social evils casting a shadow over so many lives. Her latest script Mere Dard Ko Jo Zuban Mile is centred on the dilemma of a young girl who marries a deaf and dumb person, but a few years down the line, is given the option to leave the marriage.
It is striking, however, that her scripts are so divergent from her happy-go-lucky persona. She appears untouched by pain, always laughing and joking and never giving the smallest indication that there has ever been sadness in her life. Yet all she writes are gut-wrenching plays seeped in anguish and misery. Bushra says she certainly does not write from personal experience, but that there is so much trouble in society at large that it becomes difficult to ignore. “There is so much that I want to write about. I just need to find the time to pen down all the ideas floating around in my head,” she says with a smile. But why has she focused so much on the tragic in her writing? “As a nation we are obsessed with pathos. Subcontinental culture allows artists to romanticise pain,” she explains, without really clarifying whether she is cashing in on this romanticisation of pain for commercial success, or employing it as a tool to highlight social problems.
Then there is her passion for singing, something she says she has never found enough time for. As she talks about this passion, her face softens and the pitch of her voice falls a few notches. As a teenager, when her father disallowed her from appearing on television, she tried to compensate by singing classical songs on the radio. Every now and then, she would plead with her father for permission to receive professional singing lessons, but he remained unwilling.
As with her acting career, marriage also gave Bushra the liberty to pursue her music. Soon after her daughters were born, she began training with composer Ibrahim Hussain. But it did not take her long to realise that singing required a discipline and a commitment that she could not afford. “That discipline and time was devoted entirely to my daughters and I knew that there was no way I could commit to anything as regular and demanding as classical singing,” she says.
Frustration over her own inability to pursue music as a career apart, this failure hardly takes anything away from her multidimensional talents which unsurprisingly frustrate those who want to box her in as a comedian, for instance. When her comic roles in shows like Fifty Fifty and Show Sha became hits, her husband told her to focus exclusively on comedy as he regarded that to be her forte. Bushra’s reaction to his advice was to detach herself from all comic roles for the next few years and focus solely on serious plays. In 1986, she proved her mettle in that genre by winning several national awards in the best actress category for her serious role in PTV serial Raat Gaye.
Over the years, she has perfected both kinds of roles — this was quite evident when this year her two most watched dramas were Bilqis Kaur and Annie Ki Aayegi Baraat. Both serials required her to play the part of an overbearing Punjabi woman, though with vastly different characteristics. In the former drama, Billo’s character was that of a stern and humourless matriarch, living along with family in New York, a woman whose traditional beliefs clash with the modern values of her children, while the infamous character of Saima Chaudhry in the latter play was that of a flirtatious woman whose idiosyncrasies brought nothing but mirth and laughter to her family and the audience. Both characters lie at opposite ends of the spectrum but Bushra proves that she has the ability to make her fans cry in anguish or laugh with pleasure.
Having won so much acclaim for everything she has done, Bushra seems to have left no peak unscaled. For many, this would be the time to say goodbye and pack up. Not for her, though. “I’m not going to give up. I love challenges and I love the sense of achievement you feel when you successfully gain something,” she vows, adding that she does not do anything for money or glamour or for any social or political reason. “I do all the work I do firstly because I can, and secondly because it gives me a sense of accomplishment.”
Rumours abound about what she may be up to next. Some say she is going to campaign for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf in the next elections; she denies that, saying she doesn’t have the emotional strength for it. Others, such as senior actor Javed Sheikh, speculate that she may come up with a music album; though flattered by the speculation, she dismisses it as baseless.
But then, Bushra has always been full of surprises. She surprised her father when she succeeded in her first television audition. She surprised her husband with her accomplished performances in serious roles. She surprised herself when critics lauded her for the script of Neeli Dhoop. Who she will surprise next and how she will do it is difficult to predict, but what is easy to predict is that she will continue to explore and experiment. And she knows that she is not going to go away from the national television scene any time soon, unlike so many others of her generation who have done so. When I first called her for an interview, she was wrapped up in shoots and asked me if I could wait a few weeks. Upon hearing the dejection in my voice, she cheerfully added: “Don’t worry, jan. I will still be famous next month. What’s the rush?”
As a child, each summer, I performed all the requisite ‘city-girl-in-a-village’ activities: I would go swimming in my uncle’s tubewells, I would show off my latest camera and ask my cousins to take pictures of me picking cotton; I’d spend hours playing hide-and-seek in sugar cane plantations and I would eat any variety of mango that my heart desired because I have eight uncles and they each grew a different kind. But as the years passed, time constraints grew and so did responsibilities and family vacations became nearly impossible to plan.
Last month, one of my first cousins from Chishtian announced to the family that he had fallen in love and was to be married. A trip to Punjab was long overdue and this wedding was a great excuse.
My over-anxious parents, already-irate brother and I boarded the Shalimar Express to Bahawalpur at 6 am on a Thursday morning, with three pieces of hand-luggage, two cartons of presents, a potla of old giveaway clothes, a few shopping bags full of food and snacks and pillows and blankets. Twelve uneventful hours later, the train was closing in on the city where Ziaul Haq had his last meal before crashing to his death — trivia that my Bahawalpuri uncle tells us every time we visit.
Anyone who has ever taken the Shalimar Express to Bahawalpur knows that the train stops at Bahawalpur for exactly a minute and a half and it takes a great deal of expert and strategic pre-planning for four family members and their 11 pieces of luggage to find a way off the train while, simultaneously, aspiring and equally-prepared passengers want to climb aboard and other aggravated ones wish to depart. After much kicking, elbowing and wriggling, we made our way to the main gate, over which there was a life-sized poster of Benazir Bhutto saying: “Welcome Bahawalpur.”
Over dinner, we made plans for the next day: we would join the baraat en route Rahim Yar Khan in my uncle’s car, and on Saturday we would go to Chishtian for the valima.
Almost every family wedding I have attended in Punjab has been held at noon and this function was no exception. The bride was refusing to sit on stage because the sole pedestal fan was broken and she feared her make-up might melt; moreover, the women’s section wouldn’t be served food until the men had eaten. With no bride to take photographs with and no food to eat, I decided to kill time by mingling with guests, most of whom comprised distant family members.
There were a few customary inquiries about why I wasn’t yet married, but the most popular question was related to my choice of profession. I didn’t quite know how to explain the term ‘Editorial Assistant’ in Punjabi, so I decided to describe myself as a sahaafi. I hoped this revelation would start a debate about local political issues and hence pass time till the biryani was served. I was wrong. Some of the most memorable reactions I got were:
“Why beta?” asked my twice-removed great-aunt. “The media is the most shameless profession in Pakistan.”
“If you ever want to screw someone over, set a paper-waali on them,” reflected the father of the bride.
“But you’re a girl — you should teach. Does your father know you do this or is it a secret?” asked yet another worried second cousin of my mother.
“A journalist in Karachi? Didn’t you do well at college?”
At first, I tried to argue and reason with them, but after a distant and unrecognisable uncle said “Oh, so you’re the akhbaari? Tell me: is unemployment really such a problem in Karachi?” I gave up and went to hide behind my brother. He wasn’t having much luck either: they all loved that he was a trusty old banker but he would lose them the moment he mentioned Barclays — if it wasn’t a national bank, they weren’t interested.
For the valima in Chishtian, I decided to try harder. While accompanying the bride to the beauty parlour instead of making conversation, I kept silent and got my hair done, which cost a grand total of 200 rupees. I spoke (read: lied) to my aunts and uncles about how dangerous Karachi was and how I perennially fear for my life.
It seemed to work: the uncles invited me to visit their fields after the function ended and the aunts fondly retold anecdotes from my childhood to other guests. It appeared that to gain my family’s approval, instead of standing out, I needed to fit in.
The writer is a part of Herald’s editorial team.
Striking up a conversation with Bushra Ansari is easy — she loves to talk. But she struggled with words when an American couple seated next to her on a recent long haul flight asked her how she spent her time in Pakistan. For a while, she was stumped. After some reflection, she responded: “I am an artist.” “Oh, that’s lovely! What do you like to paint?” pat came the next question. Bushra erupted into her characteristic full-throated laughter, knowing words wouldn’t do the trick this time. She zipped out her Ipad and began showing the Americans video clips featuring her varied talents — as an actor, a comedian, a playwright, a television show host and a mimic.
Ram Kori, a young Hindu girl, fell in love and eloped with Amir Noor Ali, a Muslim boy. Her mother approached the courts, pleading that her under-age daughter had been abducted and forcibly converted. The government subsequently arrested Ali and imprisoned him for two years and Kori, now Islam Bibi, was returned to her parents.
If this story sounds out of place in today’s Pakistan, it is because it pre-dates the creation of the country. The incident took place in 1936 when, in British-ruled, un-partitioned India, Hindus were in a majority unlike their numbers in present-day Pakistan. Kori was a resident of what was then the North West Frontier Province and Noor Ali came from the Waziristan tribal agency.
The tribal Muslims, however, did not take the return of the girl lying down. For the next 11 years there was a rebellion against the British, led by a local Pakhtun leader known as the Fakir of Ippi.
The story of Kiran Kumari, who fell in love and eloped with a Muslim boy from a village in the southern part of Rahimyar Khan district earlier this year, is the same as Kori’s — right down to the support that both girls received from the local Muslim population. In Kiran’s case, this support has been led by Mian Abdul Haq alias Mian Mitho, the political and religious leader of the area. The only difference is that it appears that Kiran is not going to make it back to her parents.
On a day in early September, reporters and photographers from different parts of Pakistan come face-to-face with most of the characters in her story at Mitho’s residence, on the outskirts of Daharki town in northern Sindh. As Kiran walks into a room full of journalists, she looks at everyone and smiles charmingly. She doesn’t look a day older than 14, but when she speaks she exudes the confidence of a minor celebrity.
She narrates in detail how she fell in love with Shabbir Ahmed, who told her that she would have to convert to Islam if she wanted to marry him. She then left her home a day before Eidul Fitr to join Ahmed who brought her to Mitho’s house. Once among Muslims, she hastily accepted Islam and the two were married.
Mitho, who represents Ghotki district in the National Assembly, belongs to the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party and is the custodian of a famed Muslim shrine, Bharchundi Sharif, near Daharki. He is known to convert and provide protection to Hindu girls who want to marry Muslim boys. A tall man with greying locks, a flowing white beard and a conical cap — he looks like Santa Claus dressed in white.
Mitho is unapologetic when asked why he helps eloping girls to convert. He says it is his duty to provide protection to anyone who wishes to accept Islam. “We take in the eloping couples because it is our duty to provide them with security,” he says.
By his own assertion, Mitho maintains regular contact with many of the girls who have converted recently, supposedly to ensure their safety and security. But Hindu community leaders explain that the concept of honour killing or declaring their girls as karis is foreign to the community; they insist that no convert has ever been harmed by her family following her marriage.
Mitho also adds that his first reaction, after a girl arrives at his house for conversion, is to call her parents and inform them that their daughter is safe with him. “We then wait a few hours to see if they are interested in taking her back,” he tells the Herald. “More often than not, they show no interest because they are angry at her for wishing to convert to Islam and they don’t take action until after she has been converted and married.”
In Kiran’s case, Hindu community leaders insist that she was abducted. “On the eve of Eid, she went to the fields with her mother to bring back fodder for their livestock. Four Muslim boys started teasing the girl as the two women were returning home. When Kiran told them off, they became angry and took her away on a motorcycle” — this is how Ramesh Jaipal, a leader of the Hindu community in Rahimyar Khan, narrates the case. He tells the Herald how hundreds of Hindus peacefully protested outside the house of Kiran’s alleged abductors a day after she was taken away — only to face further abuse. Many of the protesters were badly beaten by local Muslims for gathering in a Muslim area, he says.
While Kiran denies all this and insists that she left her home of her own volition, she appears confused about how to explain the reasons behind her conversion. “Did you leave home because you loved Islam, or because you loved the boy?” she is asked. “I left for the love of Islam. Shabbir was simply the route to my new religion,” she replies but cannot explain what it is about Islam that inspired her to convert, or how well she knew the religion prior to her conversion. Soon her answers begin to contradict each other — the question of how she landed at Mitho’s house, especially, becomes blurred in the thicket of her changing statements.
To divert attention from her, Mitho’s men rush in her husband. But it seems that Ahmed is not as confident as his wife; when he is asked a question, his eyes dart to the back of the room towards where Mitho is standing, for reassurance and confirmation. After much confusion, Kiran whispers something in his ear and he begins to talk about where he comes from.
A diffident Ahmed, understandably, fails to reduce the confusion in the room. At first, he says he doesn’t love Kiran; then, minutes later, after she surreptitiously elbows him, he begins to talk about how he wrote love letters to her for two years. Neither of the two have these letters anymore. In this case, the mixing of love with religion is not as seamless as Mitho and his men would like it to appear.
According to others familiar with such cases, religion or love – or a combination of the two – are not the only factors: social and economic issues are also involved. Kiran belongs to the Meghwal caste – often described by Hindus to be the lowest rung of the Scheduled Castes – and has five sisters and four brothers. She says that most of her sisters are unmarried due to economic hurdles as well as the unavailability of suitable boys within their caste. These revelations shed some light on why Kiran may have resolved to leave her home.
Amar Guriro, a senior journalist who has written extensively on such issues, recently reported that sometimes Hindu girls “convert of their own will, as dowry is a big issue within the [Hindu] community”. Many girls feel that eloping with a Muslim boy is wiser than waiting for a dowry that may never materialise, he adds.
According to most of the Hindu women interviewed by the Herald in Rahimyar Khan, these explanations are meaningless. To them, the only explanation that does make sense is that Muslims take their girls away simply because they have the power to do so.
Whatever the reasons may be, incidents of girls from Hindu families converting and marrying Muslim men have become quite frequent, especially in the adjoining districts of Rahimyar Khan and Ghotki. Earlier in the year, the cases of three girls – 19-year-old Rinkel Kumari, 14-year-old Asha, and 15-year-old Bharti – who were converted and married, made headlines. Two of them were also heard at the Supreme Court following allegations that they were kidnapped and forcibly converted.
Ramesh Vankvani, president of the Pakistan Hindu Council, claims that at least 80 such cases, involving young girls, have been reported to him in 2012 alone. Conversion cases have, in fact, increased over the years. “A decade ago, there would be one or two cases in a year but in the last few years the situation has drastically deteriorated. In 2010 and 2011, there were at least 50 reported cases of abduction and forced conversion,” says Vankawani. “We must remember that many families do not even report the abductions because they fear losing respect within the community,” he says.
Jai Prakash Moorani, the editor of Sindhi language daily Ibrat and a local Hindu leader in Hyderabad, is more concerned about the religious harassment which follows a conversion rather then the conversion itself. “We don’t have a problem with our girls converting to Islam — we don’t even mind the fact that they fall in love with Muslim men. What hurts us is the way these stories play out,” he tells the Herald.
Moorani complains about how after a conversion, truckloads of Muslims drive to the convert’s hometown to cheer and celebrate “the victory of Islam”. Through speeches on loudspeakers, these cheerleaders let the locality know the name of the girl who has converted, hence embarrassing her family, he says. Ironically enough, he adds, such pageants of triumph are sometimes the only means for parents to find out that their daughter is still alive.
Such an open display of religious hostility is not without consequences. Hindus, like other non-Muslims in Pakistan, are a frightened community. Many of them have grown too fearful to demand immediate action when it comes to conversion cases. For others, the police and courts are the only resort but the process of addressing complaints is very slow in these departments. By the time the police register a First Information Report, the girl is already converted and married, says Ali Hassan, a senior journalist based in Hyderabad who has covered many conversion cases.
Many Hindus families have started taking drastic steps. “We don’t send our children to school; most of us don’t even send our married women out of the house because if something happens to them we have no one to turn to,” says Aakash Tabassum, a Hindu farmer who lives in a village not far from where Kiran’s parents live.
He points out that it is not just legal and political disempowerment which afflicts his community. The social and cultural discrimination Hindus face in Pakistan is even worse. “We are abused and sometimes physically beaten for walking too close to Muslims. Even though we are already living on the outskirts of the villages, Muslims constantly threaten to throw us out,” he says.
In villages surrounding Rahimyar Khan, the cultural code of untouchability is ubiquitous. According to some local accounts, Hindus are not allowed to work in grocery shops or at petrol stations because, apparently, everything that comes in contact with them will be rendered napaak (impure).Their children are mistreated at school — some even doubt whether Hindu children possess the same mental faculties as Muslim children. “Why should Hindu children go to school? Their brains don’t work like ours do,” says Mohammad Ibrahim, a worker at a petrol station in a village in Rahimyar Khan district.
Dreaming of social mobility under such highly discriminatory circumstances does not come easily to low-caste Hindu children. For many young girls, marrying a Muslim man is the only way to break these shackles. “Muslim boys promise these girls a prejudice-free life; they show them that the grass is greener on the other side, and slowly brainwash them until they agree to run away,” says Hasan.
But the promised end to discrimination materialises at a huge personal cost for the converted girls. Once they become Muslims, they can never go back to their parents, not even for social calls. There is no turning back for them, even when they find themselves struggling in a bad marriage. “They are told that meeting and fraternising with their Hindu parents will make them liable to be killed,” Hassan elaborates.
Some Hindu elders say they could convince the girls to return to their families if they could access them in time. Such a thing has happened in the past. “Whenever we were able to track our girls before they reached Bharchundi Sharif, we convinced them to come back and they did,” says Tabassum. But once they are in the shrine, whose custodians combine their political power with their religious status, the equation changes. No Hindu from his area, says Tabassum, would dare walk up to Mitho’s house without police protection to even talk about conversions. “Do you think there was any point in Kiran’s father pleading his case once she was in Muslim hands?” he asks.