Anti-minority bias is inherent in Pakistan’s Constitution, with successive governments adopting discriminatory laws.
The killing of 11 coal miners belonging to the minority Hazara community in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province in January 2021, once again highlighted the predicament of minorities in Pakistan.
There are five major ethnic-regional communities in Pakistan; Baloch, Muhajir, Punjabis, Pushtuns and Sindhis, as well as several smaller groups. There are also religious and sectarian groups such as Christians, Hindus, Kalasha, Parsis and Sikhs, Ahmadis and Shia sub-sects like Hazaras, Ismailis and Bohras.
Demands for greater autonomy by the major ethnic groups such as Pushtuns, Balochs and Sindhis have, over the years, provoked severe government repression. At the same time, non-Muslim minorities have continued to be the victims of particularly harsh religious laws.
At the time of its creasing as a separate nation, Pakistan was envisioned as a progressive, democratic and tolerant society, which, while retaining a Muslim majority, would give equal rights to its non-Muslim citizens. Without calling it a secular state, its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his modernist Muslim colleagues believed that Pakistan would improve its people’s socio-economic conditions and that people of all faiths and practices would continue to live as equal citizens.
Three days before the creation of Pakistan on Aug. 11, 1947, Jinnah had spoken in the clearest possible terms of his dream that the country he was creating would be tolerant, inclusive and secular. “You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state,” he declared.
Documentary evidence suggests that his words didn’t go down well with the powerful and ambitious religious ideologues. Not only was his speech blacked out in the next day’s newspapers, but successive military and democratic governments in Pakistan have also attempted to downplay, even remove, the speech from official records.
This attitude has led Pakistan not only to shift from a Jinnahist to a Jihadist (Islamic fundamentalist) course but has made it an epicentre of global terrorism. The anti-India rants have made the situation further complicated for minorities, particularly Hindus, who are seen as representing India in the country.
The Islamic identity of Pakistan was not just a religious issue, but it also became a concrete way for Pakistan’s leaders to maintain and justify their hold on power. As Pakistan’s first generation of leaders faced growing challenges from Bengali, Baloch, Sindhi and Pushtoon nationalist movements, they found it expedient to appeal to an Islamic national identity as a means of countering the ethnic or cultural divisions arising in the country. Throughout Pakistan’s history, Islam has thus often been instrumentals for narrow political purposes, and successive leaders contributed to the entrenchment of religion in state and government structures.
In the 1970s, several elements culminated to contribute to a rise in violent attacks against minority groups in Pakistan: a scramble for power by Pakistan’s political parties led to even more instrumentalisation of religious divisions in society; the institutionalisation of discrimination of minorities into legislation by the Islamist governments who came to power; and the militarization of the region, with a proliferation of arms and trained fighters turning to violence to settle conflicts. By the 1980s, violent sectarian attacks, especially targeting the Shia and Ahmadi communities, became ever more commonplace.
The military has been the most senior actor in the Pakistani power structure, with the bureaucrats and landowners holding the junior positions; its priorities have always determined national policies. A major portion of Pakistan’s expenditure has traditionally been devoted to the defence sector and, given its economic limitations, the country has borrowed hugely to sustain it.
Apart from corruption, commissions on foreign deals and loan defaulting, Pakistan’s woes have stemmed from its very small tax base. In a country of 142 million, only 500,000 pay taxes, mostly state employees. All the military-run organizations – and they account for billions of rupees – are exempt from tax. Tax evasion, loan defaults and the politics of patronage routinely add to the national deficit.
Census and number of minorities
According to the 2017 Census, Muslims make up 96.2 per cent of Pakistan’s population. Religious minorities make up only about 4 per cent of Pakistan’s total population. They are Hindus 1.6 per cent, Christians 1.59 per cent, Scheduled Castes 0.25 per cent, Ahmadis 0.22 per cent, and other minorities 0.07 per cent. Most Christians live in Punjab, while Hindus and Scheduled Castes are overwhelmingly located in Sindh. Ahmadis are evenly spread throughout the country, with some concentration in Islamabad.
Pakistan’s Shia community, which is not counted as a religious minority in the census, makes up around 20 per cent of the total population, with estimates varying widely from 15 per cent to 25 per cent. According to Minority Rights Group International (MRG) report, it is crucial to note that, given the disadvantages and stigmatization, many communities do not like to be identified as minorities so the above-mentioned figures may be an under-estimate, as some people may not have chosen to identify their ethnic or religious background.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, around 1,000 young Hindu and Christian women are forced to change their religion each year. According to one statistic provided by a local Hindu activist, 50 Hindu girls have been forcibly converted to Islam in Sindh province alone since early 2019.
The Constitution of Pakistan, in article 25 (1), guarantees that “all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law.” Article 5 provides that “adequate provision shall be made for the minorities to freely profess and practice their religions and develop their cultures,” and article 33 declares that it is the state’s responsibility to discourage parochial, racial, tribal, sectarian, and provincial prejudices among citizens. However, these provisions have never been fully implemented in practice, and are contradicted by other provisions of the Constitution.
Firstly, Article 2 declares that “Islam shall be the State religion of Pakistan,” and article 31 states that the government must foster the Islamic way of life. Article 227 (1) states that “all existing laws shall be brought in conformity with the Injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah, in this Part referred to as the Injunctions of Islam, and no law shall be enacted which is repugnant to such Injunctions.”
Even article 20 of the Constitution, which enshrines every citizen’s “right to profess, practice and propagate his religion” and that “every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions”, is “subject to law, public order and morality,” and is thus contradicted in law and practise when it comes to the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Constitution adopted in 1973 under a secular leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto defined Pakistan as an Islamic state although insufficient attention was given to this area, given the Jinnahist ideal of the separation of religion and politics. The Sikh community has also raised the issue of forced conversions in Punjab. In August 2019, 19-year-old Jagjit Kaur was forcibly converted to Islam. After the intervention of the Punjab government, the Sikh girl was returned home in September 2019.
The framers of the Constitution were mostly lawyer-politicians who were concerned about threats to the country and found Islam, at a general level, to be a helpful binding factor. Moreover, the religio-political elements such as the Jamaat e Islami and Jamiat e Ulema e Islam called for more Islamic clauses to be inserted into the Constitution. However, this policy of harmless appeasement inadvertently opened Pandora’s box and greater demands for further Islamicization. Bhutto himself initiated the process of amendments to the Constitution, which was consolidated by Zia and led to the institutionalization of exclusion and segregation of minorities. In turn, this led to wider socio-economic segregation of minorities and other underprivileged groups such as women.
Article 41 (2) states that the head of the state will be a Muslim, and Article 91 (3) stipulates that the Prime Minister shall also be a Muslim believing in the finality of the Prophethood. The clause also covers the army chief.
Article 228 established the Council of Islamic Ideology in an institutionalized role to oversee the legislation. The Federal Sharia Court, established by Zia under Article 203 (A–J) enjoys additional powers similar to those of the Council. Under Article 203–D, the Sharia Court can declare any law defunct if it is assumed to be against Islamic injunctions. Later, Nawaz Sharif’s Sharia Act (1991) made Sharia Pakistan’s supreme law. Article 31 calls on the government to promote an Islamic way of life, although Article 20 ensures each citizen’s right and freedom to profess religion and to manage religious institutions.
While Article 36 also promises the protection of minorities, the highest offices of the land being constitutionally closed to minorities suggest second-class citizenship for them. Such a measure, as originally stipulated in the Objectives Resolution, further institutionalized their inequality.
Backtrack of Imran Khan government
It was disappointing to witness that the government led by Imran Khan had to backtrack from its decision to appoint one of the country’s leading economists, Atif Mian, as an economic adviser to the prime minister. He caved to pressure from hardliners invoking Mian’s faith, as he belongs to the Ahmadiyya community.
The Ziaulhaq regime’s various amendments and additions to the Penal Code resulted in severe socio-legal discrimination against minorities. The stringent rules meant to counter blasphemy against the Quran and the Prophet have established a unilateral system in which any male Muslim can institute litigation against an individual on allegation of blasphemy.
The Zia law of evidence (Qanoon-i-Shihadah) – equating the evidence of two women or two non-Muslims to that of a single male Muslim – further disempowers non-Muslims and women, while making it easier for Muslim men to pursue legal proceedings against the accused party.
The blasphemy case concerning the Prophet, since 1990, carries the death penalty. In 1994, on a private petition regarding the Penal Code 295–C, the Lahore High Court found that it did not contravene the Constitution. Earlier, in February 1994, the Chief Justice-led Pakistan Law Commission found that this anti-blasphemy clause was being frequently misused by the police and felt that the clause could further inflame communal tensions.
The Commission, led by the then Chief Justice, Nasim Hasan Shah, had recommended its review by the Islamic Ideology Council, and Benazir Bhutto’s government agreed to amend its operation. However, following nationwide demonstrations, especially after official statements on the issue in July 1994, the PPP regime backtracked. These three anti-blasphemy clauses have been used against both Muslims and non-Muslims. In many cases, people have been subjected to trials – although the reasons may be anything other than religious.
In 2019, a large mob stormed and vandalized a Hindu temple in Sindh’s city of Ghotki over an accusation that a Hindu principal committed blasphemy.
Pakistan’s insecure and non-representative ruling elite, while seeking legitimacy, has used Islamic penal codes to establish discretionary punishments. The economic and political empowerment of the people on an equal basis through a system of joint electorates with some special incentives, seats and safeguards for minorities, abandoning state policy to support radicalism and terrorist groups and pursuing good relations with India can help Pakistan to achieve lasting social cohesion. The initiatives have to come from the government in areas including communication, the Constitution, education, electoral politics, employment and general law and order and above all amending its foreign policy priorities.
Discrimination in every sphere
During the Covid-19 pandemic, there were reports that rations were denied to Hindu and Christian minorities in the coastal areas of Karachi. Agencies involved in relief work said that the aid was reserved for Muslims only. Hindus are treated as second class citizens and systematically discriminated against in every sphere of life.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan in its judgement of June 19, 2014, had asked the government to create a task force for developing a strategy for minorities and promoting peace, tolerance and religious harmony by creating educational curricula. The judgement was delivered in a case related to the victims of the All Saints Memorial Church bomb attack (September 2013, Peshawar).
Non-Muslims constitute 3 per cent of Pakistan’s population. Of these, around 96 per cent of Hindus live in the Hyderabad division, mostly in the Tharparkar district. Around 80 per cent of Christians live in Punjab. Similarly, 60 per cent of Ahmadis live in Punjab. There is a growing trend amongst majority Muslim members to kidnap minority women and force them for conversion. An average of 25 Hindu women are kidnapped and converted to Islam every month.
A report (2014) by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace (MSP) says that about 1000 women and underage girls in Pakistan are forcibly converted (700- Christian, 300-Hindu). In a recent incident, a thirteen-year-old Christian girl Arzo Raja was forcibly kidnapped, converted to Islam and married to a 44-year-old Muslim man. Based on forged documents her case was declared null and void as she was proved to be an adult and having married of her own free will.
The blasphemy law is commonly used as a tool of harassment and persecution against non-Muslims. The state of Pakistan as a law enforcer has abused the law against minorities time and again. There are several instances, in which various governments have used it for their cheap political advantage. The case of Asiya Bibi is a horrific example of the misuse of blasphemy law against members of religious minorities. False accusations are levelled against targeted people. There is widespread support for blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Those who speak against such laws are also targeted. Ahmadia community members continue to be the main targets under these laws.
Farahnaz Ispahani, the former media advisor to the President of Pakistan (2008-2012) has blamed successive Pakistani governments for pursuing a slow genocide against minorities to shore up their political base. Mass violence like the 2009 Gojra riots, 2013 Joseph colony riots, 2012 Kohistan Shia massacre, 2012 Manshera Shia massacre and February 2013 Quetta bombings are indicative of the acts of genocide.
Islamist fundamentalist elements kill hundreds of religious minorities including women and children. There is tacit support to such elements from the government, which usually maintains silence or sparingly condemns such incidents.
The places of worship of religious minorities are desecrated, vandalized and destroyed by the goons of fundamental extremists under full patronage of the establishment. Recently, the century-old Hindu Shrine Sri Param Hansji Maharaj Samadi temple in the north-western district of Karak was destroyed by a large mob on December 30 last year on the call of a local cleric Moulvi Mohammad Sharief associated with a fundamentalist party. Such extremists did not spare the historic and holy place of Gurudwara Nankana Sahib in Lahore, a place highly revered by Sikhs and Hindus alike. Even churches were not spared. A case in point is the attack on a church in Hakeempora in the Sheikhpura district. The property of the church was damaged in this attack. The attack was led by Aoon Abbas and Ali Shan. Pakistani extremists have gone a step further in carrying this religious hatred to other countries like Afghanistan where a Gurudwara (Sikh temple) came under the attack (March 25, 2020) of Islamic extremists from Pakistan where 25 devotees were killed.
So much so, the majority of Muslims have desecrated Christian graves as part of the hate crime campaign. As many as 38 graves at a century-old Christian cemetery in Punjab were desecrated.
The Christians who live in Punjab are mostly employed in low-level menial jobs and the Hindus are mostly engaged as sanitary workers under Karachi Municipal Corporation. Though the Pakistan government announced a five per cent quota for minorities in government jobs in 2009, the claims appear to be hollow as the jobs held by minority members are still few and are mainly menial. The annual statistical bulletin indicates just 2.5 per cent of minorities as against the claimed 5.
Mushrooming of hate groups
The state of Pakistan in a very tacit manner has followed discriminatory policies against the minorities. Violent attacks continued threats and religious hatred have been played by most of the state and non-state actors. Being home to several fundamentalist Islamic groups, the hate groups usually indulge in attacking the minority community members and promote sentiments against them. In a report of Friday Times (October 9, 2015), it was indicated that an average of 5,000 Hindus leave the country for fear of annihilation. Owing to persecution and violence, the minority members flee the country and seek refuge in India. There are thousands of such people who are now staying in Rajasthan, Gujarat and several other places in India.
According to a report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, (HRCP), discrimination through the media is particularly acute against the Ahmadi community. Hate campaigns against Ahmadis have been carried out in an organised manner, through stickers placed on buses, wall chalking, and distribution of pamphlets. In Khatam e Nabuwat conferences taking place across Pakistan, clerics openly incite their followers to kill Ahmadis. This hate speech is often covered by the media, but the legitimacy of such statements is rarely questioned, nor is the perspective of the Ahmadis represented.
On Sept. 7, 2008, during a prime-time discussion on a popular Urdu TV channel, an anchorman commemorated the 1974 amendment to the Constitution which declares Ahmadis as non-Muslims and stated that “Ahmadis Wajibul Qatl” (that Ahmadis should be killed). The following day an Ahmadi doctor was shot dead in the Mirpurkhas district of Sindh, and the subsequent day another person from the same community was assassinated in the Nawabshah district of Sindh. Although incitement to murder is a crime under Pakistani laws, neither the anchorman nor the channel that aired his hate speech was indicted nor charged.
The media judiciously reports conversions of non-Muslims to Islam, most often portraying these as positive stories, but remains silent on the “organised conversions” taking place, particularly in Sindh, where several madrasas have forcibly converted non-Muslims, abducted Hindu girls to forcibly convert them to Islam, or accused non-Muslims of blasphemy. Prejudice and stereotypes also prevail in the media. The negative images portrayed of the Hindu community echo those that prevailed within the politics of undivided India in the 1920s; the media project the Hindus as agents of India, and Hindu characters in television programs and films are depicted as “opportunist”, “usurers” and “unpatriotic” to Pakistan. Christians are portrayed as “agents of the West,” and Ahmadis are referred to within Urdu newspapers as “Jewish agents,” disloyal to Pakistan and enemies of Islam. The state fails to protect these communities against such defamation and intimidation.
Pakistan behaviour needs change
To sum up, over the past several decades, successive governments in Pakistan have created and perpetuated institutionalised discrimination against members of religious minority groups. Discrimination in law and practice is still witnessed notably through a separate list for Ahmadi voters; the absence of codified personal law for Hindus and Sikhs; and the lack of effective representation for religious minority groups. Hatred is being fomented in society through the inappropriate representation of minorities in curricula and school textbooks, and children are being denied the right to choose the religion they wish to study if any.
The Pakistani authorities have failed to ensure equality, dignity, rule of law and the protection of human rights of all Pakistanis, and thus rendered themselves responsible for serious violations of international human rights law, including the two International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic Social and Cultural Rights, as well as the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
It is high time for the global community to urge Pakistan to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to protect religious minorities from all forms of violence and discrimination. Pakistan should be told to repeal all discriminatory laws and Ahmadi-specific laws, and amend its domestic legislation to bring it into line with international human rights standards, in particular the so-called blasphemy laws, Hudood ordinances, and provisions relating to proselytism, conversion and apostasy. A feeling of lasting peace will come to South Asia, only once Pakistan changes its behaviour and stops discrimination on religious grounds and violence committed in the name of religion, including targeted attacks and acts of terror committed in retaliation for alleged “blasphemy” or criticisms of religion.