Pakistan today is a minefield: it is littered with the volatile matter created by decades of religious prejudice and hatred. One needs to tread carefully. But what happens when you tread carefully is you don’t think too far ahead; you tend to think from one moment to the next and hold your breath as you move forward. And you try not to look behind you.
Places of worship are attacked or burned, members of religious minorities are brutally murdered or threatened or accused of ‘blasphemy’. You need to watch your words as well as your back. In this age of Islamic militancy, it is easy to think that all this is the fallout of General Zia’s Islamisation policies and the west’s support for the jihadis in Afghanistan. But of course it’s not quite that simple — as an impressive new book on the plight of the country’s religious minorities reminds us.
Purifying the Land of the Pure by Farahnaz Ispahani is the story of the marginalisation of Pakistan’s religious minorities, from 1947 till the present day. It’s a well-researched, clearly written account of how a system of de facto religious apartheid came to prevail in this young country.
Really, it all began almost as soon as the new country came into existence. A country formed by a religious minority (in the subcontinent) became a land in which religious minorities would live in terror and insecurity. Pakistan’s first federal law minister, Jogendar Nath Mandal, was a Bengali Hindu. But by 1950 he felt bitter enough to confide in a reporter (T.V. Venkatraman) that he and most Hindus in the new country’s eastern wing felt they had no place in Pakistan, and that many were thinking of leaving for India. Mandal did leave, as did many others.
In 1947, religious minorities made up 23 per cent of Pakistan’s population but today this figure is close to close to just 3 per cent. The book documents how this situation came about and how the narrative of a religious state came to prevail, thanks to the machinations of petty politicians, malevolent bureaucrats and bullying religious clerics who early on showcased their ability to mobilise their party members and whip up frenzied ‘protest’.
The way in which the new country was hijacked by a band of bigots is fairly sinister, especially in the case of their very early censorship of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s speeches and correspondence. Not only did they (and then their heirs) manage to ‘disappear’ Jinnah’s articulation of Pakistan’s identity as a secular country in his famous August 11, 1947 speech, they also attempted to airbrush from the record any other inconvenient statements by him in this regard.
The clarity of Jinnah’s words in this particular speech rattled the religious supremacist legacy — so much so that the audio recording of the speech has vanished from the archives, and attempts to disappear the written record are ongoing (“you are free; free to go to your temples …. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state” etc.)
Ispahani has called the Pakistani state’s treatment of its religious minorities (including Muslim minorities) “a slow genocide”. Regular, everyday incidents of assassinations and attacks on minority communities certainly give credence to the statement. But this book helps one to understand just how this situation evolved and what the various key junctures in Pakistan’s history were, when the state consolidated its own power by pandering to the religious lobbies and furthering a narrative of prejudice and bigotry.