Pakistan: The White Stripe Withers

What would Jinnah think about what the country has become?

South Asia last week harkened back to the events of August 1947.  The 65th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence brought forth the expected homage to the ideals that accompanied the dissolution of the British Raj.  Yet even amid the high-minded rhetoric, unanticipated developments in both countries also evoked the Partition’s darker chapters.  The jarring contradiction raises searching questions about just how well either nation measures up to the hopes articulated by their founding fathers.

In India, an outbreak of communal violence between indigenous Bodo tribal people and Muslim settlers in the northeastern state of Assam triggered a remarkable wave of panic throughout the rest of the country.  Fearing retaliatory attacks from Muslims, migrant workers who had left the country’s neglected northeastern region to seek economic opportunities elsewhere suddenly rushed for the safety of home.  The sight of hundreds of thousands jamming into rail cars in the southern cities of Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai was an eerie reminder of the Partition’s migration trains.

As the New York Times puts it, the frantic exodus underscores the “deep roots of ethnic tension” in the country as well as challenges “the Indian ideals of tolerance and diversity.”  The Deccan Herald, a leading news daily published in Bangalore, editorialized that:

“While the country basked in celebrations of the 66th Independence Day, here was a danger signal, however minute, that we have all taken the slogans of ‘unity and integrity’ and ‘unity in diversity’ completely for granted.”

Hoping to put a lid on the hysteria and prevent the circulation of pernicious rumors, the government instituted a two-week ban on mass cell phone texting and messaging, as well as blocked some 250 websites.  It also has accused Pakistan-based elements of fomenting a fear-mongering campaign.

The exodus prompted smug Pakistani assessments about how India is the real “failed state” in South Asia, as well as crowing about the validity of the “two-nation theory” promulgated by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the revered leader of the Pakistani national movement.  Yet underway at the same time the flight into India of several hundred Pakistani Hindus fearful of persecution at home.  Their plight should cause every Pakistani to ask what Jinnah, who had hoped to impart a secular and liberal direction to the nation’s course, would think of what the country has become.

India takes justifiable pride in being the world’s most populous democracy.  But despite being banned in the Constitution, as well as the existence of government affirmative-action programs, the primordial caste system continues to shape societal interactions.  A new study, for example, reveals that the corporate sector’s top echelons remain an upper-caste preserve.  The Muslim population, the world’s third largest, also has long been locked out of the social, economic and educational mainstream, so much so that the government is mulling instituting affirmative-action schemes for the community.

National defects like these cannot be denied, though on balance the Indian political system has proven dynamic and supple enough to alleviate the tensions arising from the country’s extreme religious, ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity.  To take just one current example: Recompense has been too long in coming for the victims of the widespread anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat a decade ago, though they are now receiving a measure of justice.  Narendra Modi, the state’s chief minister, is blamed by many for, at best, turning a blind eye to the violence and, at worse, orchestrating it behind the scenes.  No matter how many accolades he receives from the investor community for his business-friendly policies, the heavy stain of his actions during the riots will keep him out of the prime minister’s office.

The gap between founding ideals and present-day realities is even larger in Pakistan.  To be sure, as a previous post noted, flickers of light can be detected even amid the rising swells of religious extremism and political violence.  As one commentator points out, liberal-minded Pakistanis are “less weak and less of a fringe phenomenon” than most in the West make them out to be.  An increasingly vibrant civil society is taking shape and it played a key role four years ago in ending Pervez Musharraf’s military regime.  Private electronic media has flourished over the last decade and today is the most influential factor in Pakistani politics.  And against all odds, the democratically-elected government in Islamabad, bruised and battered as it is, is still standing.  Not only is it within sight of finishing its allotted five-year term – a signal accomplishment in a country where the military establishment has not long tolerated civilian administrations – it also has managed to steer a more pragmatic course vis-à-vis India.

Yet at the very moment when members of the Hindu community were seeking refuge in India, it is telling that none of Pakistan’s leaders saw fit to include in their Independence Day invocations of Jinnah any mention of the vision he sought to inculcate on the eve of the nation’s creation.  Speaking at the Constituent Assembly in Lahore on August 11, 1947, the Quaid-i-Azam (“Great Leader” as he is ubiquitously referred to in Pakistan) laid out the secular ideals he hoped would animate the new state, including the equal treatment of religious minorities:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to 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 went on to declare that “We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State,” and concluded that:

“you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

Another agenda item at the Assembly meeting was approval of the design for the new country’s flag, with its prominent white strip on the hoist side meant to represent the then-sizeable numbers of religious minorities.

As last week’s Hindu exodus underscores, that white strip has steadily abraded.  Farahnaz Ispahani, a leading Pakistani liberal, laments that “Today’s Pakistan … has little resemblance to the country envisioned by Muhammad Ali Jinnah;” instead the country “has become a brutal place to live, especially if you are a member of a religious minority.”

Consider the circumstances of the ever-dwindling Hindu community.  As a growing number of Muslim men have trouble finding wives, young Hindu girls are increasingly being kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam and wed Muslim men.  Tensions were further inflamed when a live television program broadcast during Ramadan a voluntary conversion of a young Hindu man to Islam.

The use of the notorious anti-blasphemy laws against Christian minorities – exemplified by the Asia Bibi case – is another source of national disgrace, most recently criticized by a United Nations’ special rapporteur and in the U.S. State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom.  Outspoken opposition to the laws, which are often used to settle personal scores and can carry the death penalty, resulted in last year’s assassinations of Salman Taseer (the liberal governor of Punjab province, who was shot 27 times by a member of his own security detail) and Shahbaz Bhatti (a Roman Catholic who was serving as the country’s inaugural minister for minority affairs).  Currently, police in Islamabad have arrested a young Christian girl with a mental disorder for desecrating religious materials.  Some 600 of her Christian neighbors have reportedly fled in fear.

The Pakistan Taliban and Sunni militant groups have turned more and more on the minority Shia community.  Last week, 22 Shiites were pulled off buses in the country’s Himalayan region and gunned down by Sunni extremists.  The attack follows a bus ambush last February that resulted in the deaths of 18 Shiites.

Yet even with this litany of oppression, the most persecuted minority community in Pakistan remains the small Ahmadi sect that is regarded as heretical by many Muslims.  At the urging of Islamist parties, the government officially declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims in 1974 and a decade later banned them from making the hajj to Saudi Arabia.  Horrific attacks by the Pakistani Taliban on two Ahmadi places of worship in Lahore two years ago killed 86 people.

Last month’s announcement of the Higgs boson breakthrough renewed focus on the community’s suffering.  Abdus Salam, an eminent Pakistani scientist whose theoretical work on subatomic particles was honored with the 1979 Nobel prize for physics, helped lay the groundwork for this accomplishment.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he also served as chief scientific advisor to the country’s president and helped establish the country’s nuclear weapons program.  But because he was an Ahmadi, he has largely been erased from the country’s memory.  Indeed, Abdul Qadeer Khan, venerated in Pakistan as the father of the weapons program but castigated elsewhere as a proliferator extraordinaire, used his own Independence Day remarks to insult the Ahmadi community.

As America’s centuries-long struggle over racial equality attests, all nations labor to measure up to their founding identities and ideals.  But the arc of history in Pakistan is increasingly bending in the wrong direction.  My next post will offer some thoughts about how the situation might be addressed.

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