Decoding religious violence

The minority report

Refugees are served food at a community relief camp, after hundreds flee their home, at Chhajla village in India's Mendhar near the Line of Control border with Pakistan on March 1, 2019. - India and Pakistan fired barrages of shells at each other across their angry Kashmir frontier March 1, leaving at least one dead as the troubled region braces for more violence amid renewed hostilities between the arch-rivals.

Vidisha Maitra, first secretary at India’s permanent mission to the United Nations (UN), while exercising New Delhi’s right of reply at the fag end of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly on September 27, responded to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s rant and bluster.

She reminded him that Pakistan has shrunk the size of its minority community from 23% in 1947 to 3% today and has subjected Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadiyas, Hindus, Shias, Pashtuns, Sindhis and Balochis to draconian blasphemy laws, systemic persecution, blatant abuse and forced conversions. That was a well-aimed jibe at Khan, who, only some days ago, reflecting on the release of the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), accused India of trying to change the demography of the region through the “ethnic cleansing of Muslims”. 

No minority issue can be understood without the sub-continent in context. At the time of partition in 1947, almost 23% of Pakistan’s population (which then included Bangladesh) comprised non-Muslim citizens. The proportion of non-Muslims has since fallen to about 3% in Pakistan without Bangladesh.

According to the 1941 census, there were 9.45 crore Muslims and 27.02 crore Hindus in the sub-continent. The Muslims comprised 24.3% of the total population of undivided India, and the Hindus 69.5%. Pakistan conducted its first census in 2017 after 1998. Before 1998— according to which Hindus comprise 1.85% of Pakistan’s population — the census last was held in 1981. 

In the World Alliance of Religions Peace Summit at Seoul in South Korea in 2017, a delegate of Bangladesh Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Unity Council drew attention to the gruesome fact that 4.9 crore non-Muslims were missing from Bangladesh since 1947 and that non-Muslim population in Bangladesh has dwindled to 8.9 % from 19.6 % in just 40 years which is no short of a demographic disaster. Her report stated that in Bangladesh, abduction of young girls from religious minority communities, indiscriminate rape and conversion to Islam under threat are rampant and used as a tool to persecute minorities and drive them out of the country.

Earlier, human rights abuses against Hindus and other minorities in Bangladesh, mostly in the hands of the coalition of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami — rapes, tortures, killings and arson — have largely gone unreported or strictly censored by the ruling government.

Even under the Awami League dispensation, the Hindus, in particular, had become easy targets of anti-election activists during election time who ransacked their houses and other properties, under the assumption that they voted for the ruling Awami League flouting the directive to refrain from voting.

The practice of illegal seizures of homes and properties belonging to the Hindus in Bangladesh can be traced to a law passed in 1965 in the course of a brief Indo-Pak war which then involved what is now Bangladesh. The Enemy Property Act allowed authorities to confiscate properties of people labelled as “enemies of the state” which was routinely exploited in order to grab properties from religious minorities, particularly Hindus. The law— renamed the Vested Property Act in 1974 — is in force even after the formation of a secular, democratic state of Bangladesh.

The Amnesty International tried to put in context the rising violence against Hindus in the background of a surcharged war crimes trial and cited instances of vandalising Hindu temples by supporters of an Islamic party urging the Bangladesh government for giving better protection to the minority Hindus in the country.

This is important for India because such attacks trigger illegal migration into the north-eastern states of India. According to a 2012 report from the Minority Rights Group International (MRG), Baluchis, Mohajirs, Pashtun and Sindhis are under threat in Pakistan. The Ahmadis and Hindus are under threat both in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Falling prey

The Islamist zeal to “purify” Pakistan has not only endangered Pakistan’s minorities like the Hindus and the Sikhs but also the Ahmadis (also called Qadianis), considered Muslim at the Independence but de-Islamised as a non-Muslim minority since 1974 as per the declaration by the Pakistani National Assembly, and the Shias — almost 20% of Pakistan’s population — who have fallen prey to the Islamist backlash.

Religious minorities are targets of legal as well as social discrimination as indiscriminate and pernicious use of the blasphemy law in Pakistan, particularly against Christians and Ahmadis, continues to violate their rights as citizens. 

Minorities in Pakistan also continue to be victims of sectarian violence by extremist Sunni groups. There have been frequent clashes between Sunni and Shia groups across the country. In the province of Sindh, Sindhi-Mohajir clashes have claimed hundreds of lives.

On October 11, 1947, less than two months after Partition, Ahmed Said Khan, the nawab of Chhatari, wrote to his friend Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister, ‘in the interest of Muslims of the minority provinces’, upon reading a statement by the premier of Pakistan’s Sindh province, Ayub Khuhro, declaring his government as Islamic: ‘If they are going to form theocratic governments in Pakistan, there will be every justification for Hindus to form a Hindu Raj in the rest of India.’ He requested that either Liaquat or Jinnah announce clearly that ‘formation of governments in Pakistan will be on a secular basis and not on a religious basis’.

He also asked for a declaration about the protection and rights of minorities in Pakistan. But pronouncements about the protection of minorities in Pakistan made by both Jinnah and Liaquat notwithstanding, Pakistan slid into a state of a slaughterhouse for minorities. The rest is history, as they say, and Khan cannot feign ignorance.

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