This August 14th marks the 71st year of the Indian subcontinent’s division and the creation of India and Pakistan. The division of India, which most historians refer to as the Partition, divided hundreds of millions of Indian Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others into two sovereign nations: India and Pakistan. The division of India was meant to resolve the issue of religious communities in the region. Ironically, it has done the exact opposite of this for South Asia is now home to two hostile nations that are witnessing a steady rise of religious hardliners in power. What is even more worrying in this context is the fact that both countries are now armed with nuclear weapons.
The current U.S. administration’s decision to make the issue of religious freedom worldwide a cornerstone of its policies has given hope to hundreds of millions of members of ethnic and religious minorities throughout the world who are suffering persecution, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide, in their own countries. Persecuted minorities in South Asia, particularly in Pakistan, hope to see positive changes in their lives as a result of this great initiative.
The issue of religious freedom is important to pretty much all regions in the world, but it has special significance in the Indian subcontinent. It is common knowledge that the British Empire created Pakistan in 1947 as a homeland for Indian Muslims. What is relatively unknown is the fact that it was not the dominant Sunni Muslim leadership of India that was keen on seeking a separate homeland for Muslims. It was leadership from minority sects within the Muslim community who were at the forefront of this demand. These Muslim minorities — such as Shiites, Ahmadis, Sufis, and Ismailies, etc. — feared that the imminent withdrawal of the British from the region would turn them into a perpetual minority in a Hindu-majority India, and only a separate Muslim homeland could guarantee them the right to worship without any fear.
Armed with this belief that a separate Muslim homeland would be an ultimate solution to their apprehensions and fears, these Muslim minorities played a critical role in India’s partition. The first president of the All India Muslim League, the founding political party of Pakistan, was Sir Agha Khan III, an Ismaili. It was his financial support that helped the Muslim League become an important voice for Muslims in the region. The founder of Pakistan, Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a Shiite belonging to the Asnae Ashri sect of Shiite Muslims. Raja Sahab of Mahmoodabad, an ultra-rich landlord whose fortunes greatly helped Mr. Jinnah to successfully pursue his political ambitions, was also a Shiite Muslim. Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister Sir Zafarullah Khan was an Ahmadi. The list just goes on and on.
The religious leadership of Sunni Muslims, who formed the majority of the Muslim population in India, was opposed to the idea of India’s partition. Some of them were very vocal and hostile to this demand. For instance, Moulana Modudi, the founder of orthodox extremist Jamat-e-Islami, even termed Pakistan (meaning: the land of the pure) “Na-Pakistan” (impure land). Some prominent Sunni Muslim leaders from the influential Muslim religious seminary Darul-Uloom Deoband even sided with the All India National Congress and actively opposed the creation of Pakistan.
Despite fierce opposition from Indian nationalists and Sunni Muslim religious leaders, the British created Pakistan as a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. Unfortunately, they created Pakistan in areas where the demand for Pakistan was not very popular. Once Muslims from Hindu-majority parts of India started arriving in Pakistan, the administration of the newly formed country closed the border mainly due to the intense opposition from the indigenous Muslim ethnic groups. As a result, Muslims in India were divided into two hostile countries. Not many people know India has a bigger Muslim population than Pakistan. Unfortunately, these Muslims cannot freely interact with each other due to strict travel and other restrictions.
A division that was meant to resolve the issue of religious minorities ended up with an even bigger human tragedy by dividing families into two hostile nations.
Those Muslim religious minorities that had made huge physical and financial sacrifices for Pakistan did not fare any better. Soon after ethnic Bengali Muslims in East Pakistan parted ways and created their own homeland, Bangladesh, Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims by the Pakistani parliament in a bid by the so-called progressive Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to win the support of religious parties.
Shiite Muslims have also been systematically targeted since 1947 after being branded as infidels in Pakistan by the very elements that were opposed to the creation of Pakistan. Places of worship belonging to Ahmadis and Shiites are routinely attacked, and members belonging to both religious groups are attacked and killed on a regular basis by religious extremists who enjoy overt and covert support from the state itself.
In one of the worst attacks against religious minorities in Pakistan, in May 2015, at least 43 people belonging to the Ismaili community were killed and 13 others were wounded in broad daylight when six armed men opened fire inside a bus carrying members of the Ismaili community near Safoora Chowk in Karachi.
In the last few years, members belonging to moderate Sufi and Barelvi Muslim sects have also come under brutal attacks from hardliners. A number of Sufi shrines were blown up by the Taliban and other terrorist outfits. Some of these attacks left hundreds of people dead in minutes.
Members of a tiny Sikh community, settled mostly in the North-West — now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) — province of the country, have been facing persistent terrorist attacks that left a number of Sikhs dead. The peaceful and apolitical Christian minority is not safe from this campaign of terror, either — a number of churches in recent years have faced deadly suicide attacks that have left scores of Christians dead and injured. In Quetta, the capital city of restive Balochistan, five Christians were killed in May of this year. Cases of forced conversion of Hindus in Sindh province are also reported on a regular basis.
In Quetta, members of the minority Hazarah Shiites have been forced to live in just two enclaves, and those who dare to venture out are attacked and killed by religious extremists. Hundreds of members of minority Hazarahs have been killed in recent years alone. The majority indigenous population in the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region is being systematically turned into a minority by Pakistani military establishment. As per reports received from the local activists, vast tracts of land where non-locals are being housed have been allocated to some Punjab-based and Chinese groups in a bid to change the demography of the region.
The reason why we see a complete absence of justice being handed out in such cases is because of the Pakistani deep state’s overt and covert involvement. Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, which is dominated by people from mainly Punjab provinces, uses religious proxies and non-state actors to suppress both religious and ethnic minorities. In Balochistan, for example, Sunni extremists are used against Baloch nationalists who are demanding autonomy for their region. In Karachi, the financial hub of Pakistan whose taxes run Pakistan, “banned” religious outfits enjoy visible impunity and are routinely unleashed against secular, inclusive Mohajirs, the majority ethnic group in the city that has been brutally dealt with by Pakistani military since Pakistan’s creation.
The way the Pakistani military openly sided in the recent election with [playboy-turned?] Imran Khan, an avowed admirer of the Taliban, does not bode well for the future of religious minorities in Pakistan. It is on record that Madrassah Haqqania, the religious seminary where the Taliban was conceived and brought up, was awarded hundreds of millions of official grants by Imran Khan’s PTI-led government in KP province, which shares a border hundreds of miles long with Afghanistan. His party’s provincial government also offered the Taliban an office in the province.
In the wake of this situation, the appointment of former Kansas Senator and Governor Samuel Brownback as U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom by the current administration seems a very positive step. The way his department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) are advancing the issue of religious freedom on a global scale provides all religious and ethnic minorities with a substantial room for optimism. I strongly suggest institutionalization of this issue, making it a cornerstone of the U.S. foreign policy, not for just this administration, but for all the future administrations.
I would love to see the day when Pakistan’s oppressed religious and ethnic minorities finally enjoy the freedoms their forefathers dreamt of and sacrificed so much for. South Asia Minorities Alliance Foundation and The Voice of Karachi will continue to play their positive roles to achieve religious freedom and justice for all.
• Author Nadeem Nusrat is chairman of The Voice of Karachi and South Asia Minority Alliance Foundation, Washington, D.C.-based advocacy groups that represent Pakistan and other South Asian countries’ ethnic and religious minorities.
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