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Trailing the minorities of Pakistan

New Delhi, Nov 1, 2013 (PTI) 15:59 IST
Pakistani Christian minority leader J. Salik shouts anti-American slogans as he displays portraits of farmer recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize and a photograph of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a protest in Islamabad Pakistan, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, demanding the end of U.S. drone attacks on militants hideouts in the Pakistani tribal region. AP
Haroon Khalid's "A White Trail" is an account of Pakistan's religious minorities, who have culturally assimilated into the Islamic Republic, often taking on Muslim names in a hope to survive and thrive post-1947.

Khalid's journey into the heart of Pakistan's religious minorities takes him to the gurdwaras, the churches, and the temples – most of which are in ruins – thanks to the post-Partition riots and later as revenge for the demolition of Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992.

The journey to document their religious beliefs and folk tales wasn't easy for Khalid.
"...the biggest challenge was the constant fear in the minds of the minorities, which would lead to self-imposed restrictions when responding to slightly 'controversial' questions...," writes Khalid in his introductory note.

Often names have been changed to protect the identity of the minorities.

The book opens with a chapter on Holi in Multan in Punjab province and details how Parvati Devi ran for her life with her aged mother and sister when the mobs came for her in 1992."We were out on the streets, three women, running away from the mob, which wanted to burn me alive. There were thousands of them, shouting 'Naraiye Takbir, Allah o Akbar'..."

Though the book records oral histories, it also is a good read for those who know little or nothing about the minorities and their festivals, such as Holi.

Babar Raza is a Hindu, who tried to revive his "Hindu roots" following General Zia-ul-Haq's Islamisation process of the late nineteen eighties.

"I thought to myself like the Muslims, we Hindus should also pay attention to our religion and practices. None of our elders knew anything about Hinduism at that time and that bothered me. I wanted to explore my roots and revive our religious traditions."

Khalid takes part in Holi, Navratri, Shivratri and Janmasthami celebrations in Pakistan detailing interesting insights into the whys and hows of the festivals.

"A White Trail" – which derives its nomenclature from the white in the green Pakistani flag that symbolises minorities – takes the author to Christian dominated areas and their Churches, mostly around Lahore, which is where the author is based.

Father Ansari is talking about the religious significance of Palm Sunday. The prayers are said in Urdu.

The account of Bishop John Joseph, the first Punjabi priest, who dedicated his life to political activism along with religious commitments, and who shot himself so that the Lord accepts the sacrifice of his blood for the benefit of his people, is chilling.

Bishop Joseph was trying to save the lives of Salamat, 11, and Manzoor Masih, 38, who had been accused of blasphemy. The Bishop argued that the accused were illiterate and hence could not have scribbled blasphemous content on walls. The judge Arif Bhatti, acquitted the two, only to be gunned down in his chamber.

The author also mentions the case of Aasia Bibi, another Christian, currently in jail on charges of blasphemy. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed for supporting Aasia. So was Federal
Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic Christian.

But there are other minorities, who are fewer in number and keep a low profile and seem relatively safe.

Parsis, according to a legend, when they sailed into Gujarat from Persia, promised the king of the city, a Rajput Rana, that the community would be like sugar in milk – "invisible yet adding colour to the community". The community has stayed that way. Though their population is a little higher in Karachi, the non-existent community in Lahore can be counted on one's fingers.

The Fire Temple does not have a priest and there is no Tower of Silence in Lahore and the dead are buried, just like the Muslims, in a graveyard near Minar-e-Pakistan.

The Baha'i community also has a handful of members, and unlike Parsis, allows people to convert to Baha'i faith. There have been cases of Muslims embracing Baha'i faith. According to the author, the Baha'is have been spared religious persecution unlike other minorities.

"Many people in the country are unaware of this religion whereas others think it is a sect within Islam," the author points out.

The author, refers to the Ahmadiyya mosque as a "place of worship" – not a mosque.

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