Non-Muslims are a Vital, Indispensable Part of Pakistan | The Citizen, India

May 2014

If relationship with land is seen as one of the most fundamental ways to position people with a national identity, then Hindus are, paradoxically, the original, the first Pakistanis. Long before Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism , Islam and other creeds advanced in South Asia , the areas that constitute both the foundational version of Pakistan, 1947-1971 , and the post-1971 Pakistan were home to Hinduism and Hindus.

There is a need to immediately stress that the preceding statement is categorically not meant to encourage Narendra Modi and the Hindutva extremists of India to ratchet up their hostility against Pakistan and make an attempt to re-claim our country’s sovereign territory in the name of historic origins !

Their compatriots of earlier times, and their unwilling – or conscious ? ! – allies like Indira Gandhi in the pre-1971 period made sure that they helped precipitate the break up of Pakistan, partly as one of several ways to reclaim “lost” soil. (Only to belatedly realize that an independent Bangladesh remains proudly Muslim and distinct in its own predominantly Muslim yet secular Bengali identity and shows no desire to be reunited with West Bengal). But that is another story, better dealt with separately.

The subject of this reflection is prompted by two recent events. On 24th April, 2014 , the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan released its special report on the state of minorities in our country. The report highlights an increased sense of insecurity amongst many minorities due to the bigoted violence and coercion committed by extremists misusing the name of Islam but who themselves represent small minorities within a predominantly Muslim majority.

The second reason is that on 26th April 2014 on the lawns of the splendid old Beach Luxury Hotel nestled on Karachi Creek, owned by the eminent Zoroastrian Avari family now led by former Parliamentarian Byram Avari, this writer was kindly asked by the hosts to be the chief guest at the annual graduation ceremony of The Lyceum School located at 78, Clifton, Karachi, close to 70, Clifton, where Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto used to reside.

There were about 1500 attendees. About 400 students who had completed the 2-year A-Level course and were graduating that day. About 400 other students entering their second year of studies. About 500 to 600 parents. Over 120 teachers and guests. Three of the most outstanding students recognized for their excellence were young Hindu Pakistanis. Neeraj Golani who shared the Award with two others for Excellence in Accounts. He also shared the Special Mention for Excellence in Business Studies with one other student while also sharing with one other Hindu student and a Muslim student the Award for Excellence in Accelerated Mathematics. While going on to make a Hindu monopoly with one other student of the same faith to win the Award for Excellence in Further Maths.

And then there was Vinay Gauba . He began with the Award for Excellence in Economics, then shared the Award for Excellence in Accelerated Mathematics and Further Mathematics, as above. To round this off, Vinay Gauba went on to win the Award for Excellence in Science and then to the ultimate honour of receiving the Valedictorian Award and to present the Valedictorian address on behalf of all students. All three were heartily applauded .

As with the other recipients, these three remarkable young Hindu students were described by their respective teachers in terms that expressed genuine affection and admiration for them. There was no special condescension in such remarks for these three exceptional non-Muslim students. Yet it is clear that they are in a class by themselves. They are growing up in a society that is overwhelmingly Muslim i.e. 97% . Moreover , this is a society in which some never tire of reminding themselves and reminding everyone else about its Muslim composition. These young Hindus, like other young non-Muslims are far more vulnerable than adults to crude or subtle indicators of majority -bullying or dominance. Yet here are three truly extraordinary youth, who looked as proud to be Hindu as they are proud to be Pakistani. Significant credit goes to the humane values and the environment of respect for diversity nurtured in The Lyceum School by its founder, the caring and compassionate Mrs. Scherezade Ashdar Ahmed and the able, soft-spoken Principal Shereen Saeed Khan born in Dehra Doon ! ).

So distinctive is this School that in January 2014, at Harvard University’s Model United Nations,attended by 3000 delegates from 94 schools of 36 countries from around the world ,The Lyceum of Karachi secured the Best International Delegation Award in addition to four Best Delegate and two Special Mention Awards for the eight-member students’ team .

Though the school is located in one of Karachi’s more posh areas, the students represent much of Karachi’s fascinating diversity. 30% to 40% come from non-posh areas and receive subsidies and scholarships. So the mix of students does not consist of the upper income, westernised, liberal class normally associated with demonstrated and articulated respect for non-Muslims. The middle-income class, parts of which breed orthodoxy and narrow-mindedness – like their counterparts in India ! – are also represented in the student body. Even after allowing for the feel-good conviviality which marks graduation ceremonies, the ambience of the event generated by all present was authentically pluralist and mutually respectful.

The creation of Pakistan in 1947 and its renewal onwards of 1971 induced amongst non-Muslims a perception of being at a disadvantage. While some , or sometimes many , suffered intimidation, a process of quiet acceptance and assimilation also occurred. One is always silently startled by how spontaneously and fluently Hindu , Christian and other non-Muslim Pakistanis greet Muslims like me with “Assalam-o-alaikum” or bid goodbye with “Khuda hafiz”. There are also the Pakistani counterparts of Hindu Indians who visit the shrines and tombs of great Muslim saints in India when they mix and merge with joy and reverence side-by-side with Muslims, be it at Sehwan Sharif in rural Sindh or at Data Darbar in Lahore.

When faced with threats and challenges, human beings everywhere tend to develop resilience as a means of survival. Non-Muslim Pakistanis as a whole and Hindu Pakistanis in particular are role models of resilience. There are the Dalits of Tharparkar such as the Kohlis and Bheels who survive prolonged droughts and seasonally migrate to the barrage -irrigated areas of Sindh to become the virtual back-bone of agricultural productivity . There are highly competent professionals in the legal and judicial sectors, in education, health care, engineering, architecture, corporate management, marketing , fashion, media . At the uppermost income levels are low-profile prosperous merchants and proprietors of large business houses . Through reserved seats and through participation in general politics, several make notable contributions in the legislatures to public discourse and law-making, and to debates and activism in civil society.Even the Ahmedi community that is easily the most vulnerable to persecution is engaged in a wide range of private and public spheres.Non-Muslim Pakistanis have demonstrated an incredible ability to overcome formidable odds, to compete with others who enjoy the advantages of being in the majority and who nevertheless succeed and sustain their achievements.

Despite being unfairly excluded by Constitutional provisions from holding the two highest offices of the State i.e. that of the President and Prime Minister, non-Muslim Pakistanis make their presence disproportionately pervasive and un-missable through their places of worship (cathedrals, churches, temples, gurdwaras ,) , Christian-founded schools and colleges( where most of the enrollment is Muslim ) , hospitals and clinics of repute, social welfare centres, venues for public recreation and landmarks et al .

Some ignorant fanatics fired with hate and weapons are inexcusably able to threaten or pillage or occasionally kill non-Muslims . Discrimination does take place in some spheres. Poverty and injustice cause endemic suffering . Yet non-Muslim Pakistanis also know that the vast majority of Muslim Pakistanis recognize and respect the tragic fact that more Muslims are killed by the hand of other fellow Muslims than their own casualties , that Pakistan is engaged in an intense internal struggle at multiple levels for identity , stability and security, and that , however numerically small they may be, non-Muslim Pakistanis are vital, vibrant , indispensable parts of an intrinsically pluralist Pakistan.

As published on the The Citizen, India's first independent online newspaper on 3rd May 2014