People & Society

The (un)imagined citizens of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Updated 15 Aug, 2016 06:40pm
A woman sits inside her burnt house in Joseph Colony, a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore, set ablaze by a mob in 2013| Arif Ali, White Star
A woman sits inside her burnt house in Joseph Colony, a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore, set ablaze by a mob in 2013| Arif Ali, White Star

One of my favorite viral videos begins by showing an Asian woman jogging in a park somewhere in the United States. A white man stops her and asks where she is from. She says ‘San Diego’. It is obvious that is not the answer he wants and finally, visibly irritated, she says that her great grandmother was from Korea. The man is delighted and begins to ask her about Korean food and culture. When she asks him the same question he replies by saying that he is American and when pushed further concedes that yes, his grandparents had come from Britain — so the girl puts on an exaggerated British accent and asks him about Jack the Ripper and afternoon tea.

In the wake of Brexit, after the several fold increase in racism being reported in the United Kingdom, a question that has assumed a new urgency is how do we measure the authenticity of a claim to belong in the nation state? Is it something visible that you can see when you pass someone on the street, making it legitimate to accuse them of being outsiders, to say: ‘we voted to leave to get rid of you?’ Presumably the people from within the UK, who left posts all over social media reporting being subject to such accusations, were not first asked about their current passport status. It then comes down to whether, on sight, you can be identified as an outsider.

As part of a nation, we all maintain mental lists that describe who really belongs in our country. What we are not consciously aware of, is that this list has historically shifted. For instance, the position of religious minorities in the new state was debated in the Constituent Assembly from the time Pakistan was made. The space they had to claim to be authentic citizens in Pakistan, has been squeezed over time. The provisos on their claim to belong included: you can vote, but you cannot become prime minister (Constitution of 1973); you can live here, but we (the true citizenry) will have to sign a sheet saying we collectively believe you are a minority (1984); you may not ever say that you are Muslim (ibid); you should not be part of the general vote and we will therefore apply a system of separate electorates for you (1985-2002). In other words, the list is constantly updated with respect to political events and national priorities.

Also read: Acts of faith: Why people get killed over blasphemy in Pakistan

Depending on what minorities represent at a particular point in time, they can also be perceived as threatening to the rest of the nation. It was, perhaps, observing this that Habib Jalib wrote ‘khatray mein Islam nahin’ [Islam is not in danger]. The idea that this religion is in danger and that religious minorities would pollute it by not giving it enough respect has lead to the toxic perception ‘us versus them’ in the eyes of the pure Muslim. A perception complicated by the fact that, in Pakistan, religious denomination is intrinsically connected to citizenship. As such, the arbitrary terms applied to those who are seen as second-class citizens such as ‘minority’ and ‘migrant’ are also used to delineate those who become legitimate objects of violence committed in order to protect and purify that arbitrary and forever shifting “us”.

In most discussions of the place of religious minorities in Pakistan, the 1970s and the 1980s, particularly the regime of General Ziaul Haq, is seen as the pivotal time period for when Islamization of the state narrowed the public space that could be claimed by groups other than the Sunni Muslims. This is true, but it is also possible to argue that this was a longer process, intrinsically connected to the terms in which the Pakistani nation was imagined and then re-imagined.

A Hindu temple in Jhimpir | Tahir Jamal, White Star
A Hindu temple in Jhimpir | Tahir Jamal, White Star

When anyone in Pakistan asks ‘what was the place of religion in the Pakistan Movement?’ they dissect the first part of the question, paying scant attention to the second. Was there even a monolithic, nationally uniform Pakistan Movement? Research shows that the variegated local level of politics presents a stark contrast to the official nationalist narrative. It is very convenient for the modernists who follow in Jinnah’s footsteps to repeat his oft-quoted Constituent Assembly speech without repeating what scholars have noted after — that many in the crowd did not know what to do with this new information. Pakistan would not be a theocratic state? What did that even mean for a country formed on the basis of a religious identity?

Sir Malcolm Darling, a British colonial official, took a tour of the Punjab in the late 1940s when the Muslim League was campaigning. I like to imagine him as a colonial stereotype in his breeches on a horse, sweating profusely as he tried to understand what the Punjabi peasants thought of the Pakistan Movement. Some told him that it was about the Hindus and Muslims getting their own land; some said it was an affair of the Muslims; others said they simply had no idea what it was about. It is surprising to read this (this particular excerpt can be found reproduced in Yasmin Khan’s book, ‘The Great Partition’) because clearly, not everyone was on the streets hailing the creation of a new state. Some of them were just trying to get by in conditions of abject poverty and post-war inflation. However, remaining distant from the political project of Pakistan did not mean that everyone had the luxury of remaining distant from the violence of communalism that would go hand in hand with that political movement.

The idea that this religion is in danger and that religious minorities would pollute it by not giving it enough respect has lead to the toxic perception ‘us versus them’ in the eyes of the pure Muslim.

In 1946, a railway worker in Lahore experienced the increasing animosity toward other religious groups in the lead up to Partition; the daily acts of violence that became frequent enough to be considered normal. He came home every day and wrote about it in his diary. Many years later, this diary was discovered and then published by someone who was flipping through books in Urdu Bazaar. These were not deep, philosophical reflections. One of the most interesting (and frustrating for a historian) aspects of his diary is how brief and matter of fact the diary entries are. For instance, a typical diary entry would include: I went out, saw that someone had set the market on fire. Went home. Had tea. Went out again, in a rickshaw. Similarly: ‘Someone from Muslim League came to teach us how to use a dagger. Went home. Had tea. Went out again.’ What makes the diary fascinating is that we, sitting in Pakistan, reading this diary (and also sipping tea) are familiar with the context.

One day, in 1946, the railway worker went to work to pick up his pay check and discovered that Sikhs who came to get their salary slips were being murdered as soon as they attempted to leave. He, being Muslim, was able to get his salary with ease. He described how there was a police search of houses after another market fire. Gun powder was found at the house of one of the Sikhs who was searched. His record of events reveals an increasing sense of suspicion among the hitherto coexisting communities.

Also read: State of fear: The plight of non-Muslims living in Pakistan

The vast majority of us were too young to have witnessed the events, but we have all heard stories of the horrors of migration, of the desperate need for a separate homeland where we could practice our religion freely. The story we were told was one of Muslims wronged by Hindus, Sikhs and having to stick together and form their own country because they had no other choice. The story of the railway worker is, on the other hand, one in which communalism increases as religious groups band together to protect each other against the increasingly demonic image of the other religious communities.

Post 1947 considerable effort was put into creating the image of a Muslim Pakistan with Islam as a unifying factor. This process, even at an early stage was contested. When the Objectives Resolution was introduced, Dhirendranath Dutta – who had been asked by Quaid-e-Azam himself to be a part of the Assembly –protested its inclusion and said what would prove to be a prescient observation: ‘Sir, I sit down with the warning: do not mix politics with religion and if you do it, you will be landing yourself into difficulties. It is not a constitution for today’s generation, but for generations to come … future generations will protest against you.’ (Constituent Assembly Session, 29th October 1953).

A Hindu temple burns after it was attacked in Larkana, March 15, 2014 | Reuters
A Hindu temple burns after it was attacked in Larkana, March 15, 2014 | Reuters

This same Objectives Resolution was inserted into the 1973 constitution thus ensuring that religious minorities were on a lower rung of the hierarchy of Pakistani citizenship. Last month, a Hindu man in Pakistan’s Ghotki district was beaten and tortured by a police official for allegedly eating and selling food before iftari. This man who was in his 80s was beaten for the supposed disrespect he had shown to the mainstream religion and, in all probability, because the police official in question was not expecting any retribution. The deplorable conditions of the Hindu community in Pakistan is not news to anyone and if a social media campaign for justice had not been launched, it is entirely possible that the matter would have ended without any arrests being made. This attack is just one example. The numerous blasphemy cases against religious minorities, the attacks on Ahmadis and their places of worship, on smaller groups like the Kalasha and Shia Muslims have become commonplace.

It is important to think about what we as Pakistani citizens have allowed Pakistan to be imagined as. In the words of Ian Kershaw, ‘the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.’ It is essential that we at least create the space to question our nationalism and why we have been able to use it to validate differential access to citizenship in Pakistan.

Anushay Malik has a PhD in history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and is currently an assistant professor of history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.