In the inhospitable terrain of Balochistan, perennially outside Islamabad’s shrinking circle of control, marauding gangs have made it a habit of targeting people even on days of celebration. It was so with Maharaj Lakhmi Chand Garji, the 82-year-old head priest of the ancient Kali Mata Mandir in the town of Kalat. On December 17 last year, he and four of his companions were driving down the RCD (Regional Cooperation for Development) highway, on their way to attend a wedding in Khuzdar. A vehicle began tailing them. Finally, 100 km away from Surab, it shot past them on the deserted stretch of the highway, only to menacingly manoeuvre so as to bring Garji’s vehicle to a screeching halt.
|Garji, the abducted Hindu spiritual leade|
His exalted status is precisely why his kidnapping has continued to hog headlines, stoked the simmering anger among the Hindus, and prompted some to file applications in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad seeking asylum. The federal minister for human rights Saeed Ahmad Khan confirmed, “As many as 27 Hindu families from Balochistan have applied for asylum to India.” This symbolises the minority community’s lack of faith in the Pakistan nation-state and is testimony to its faltering ideals. Hence the media’s dogged focus on the plight of Balochistan’s Hindus.
It’s also true that the Hindus, despite their minuscule numbers, haven’t allowed the kidnapping of Garji to sputter into oblivion. As news of his abduction broke out, the community organised protests in the towns of Kalat, Khuzdar, Naushki and also blocked the national and RCD highways. Outside the Khuzdar Press Club, leaders of the community blamed the government for its inability to protect the life and property of the people, particularly those of minority groups. In Balochistan’s capital, Quetta, the Hindu Panchayat organised a spectacular march that wended its way through the streets of the city, a form of protest minorities rarely resort to. Santosh Kumar Bugti, a member of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), told Outlook, “We are very scared and desperate and need protection. We will do anything to release our Maharaj.”
“We are very scared and desperate and need protection. We will do anything to release our Maharaj.”
Santosh Kumar Bugti, Pakistan Muslim League (M)
What, though, has embarrassed the government and aroused sympathy is the repeated assertion of Hindu leaders that migration to India is a definite option for them. Simultaneously, they have also harped upon the exemplary Baloch tradition of religious tolerance, a subtle reminder about Balochistan’s alienation from its own moorings. For instance, earlier this month, Radhay Shyam openly justified the migration option, “The kidnapping of Hindus has increased. The kidnappers didn’t even spare our 82-year-old spiritual leader. This has deeply shaken our community. For centuries, we have been living with Baloch nawabs and sardars; assaulting the weaker Hindu community is against Baloch tribal traditions.”
This combination of threats and placatory appeals has mounted moral pressure on the government and opposition, prompting them into issuing statements in support of the Hindus of Balochistan. Chief minister Mohammad Aslam Raisani said, “The Hindus are an integral part of Balochistan and the government will provide them with complete protection.” This week saw Pakistan Muslim League (Q) leader and National Assembly member Marvi Memon visit the Arya Samaj Mandir in Quetta, a commendable step in the prevailing atmosphere of religious intolerance. Memon told a gathering of Hindus, “We have condemned the kidnapping on the floor of the National Assembly. The government should ensure the security of all citizens, including minorities. It’s also the responsibility of tribal chiefs and sardars to ensure the security of the Hindu community.”
Perhaps never before has a minority group as small as the Hindus of Balochistan so effectively reminded the nation about its ideals, its hallowed traditions. Look at their population—the 1998 census reported a little over 30,000 Hindus; the locals, though, say their number is as high as 1,50,000. Unlike their religious brethren in Sindh, the Hindus of Balochistan are prosperous, an important factor underlying their visible campaign against the abduction of Garji. As Prof Mansoor Akbar Kundi of Quetta University wrote in Balochistan: A Socio-cultural and Political Analysis, “They belong to the business class.... Some of them are wealthy merchants owning jewellery and general stores, but the majority are of middle and lower middle class businessmen with their shops/stores in the bazaars of various towns.” But the Hindus here are not a monolith community. A 2003 report of the Minority Rights Commission, prepared by Akram Mirani, notes that Baloch and Brahui tribes in some areas hire lower-caste Hindus to perform tasks that Muslims consider below their dignity.
It’s the Hindu businessmen who are often the target of kidnappers. Their wealth, not religion, is the reason why they are targeted, many told Outlook. Before Pakistan was sucked into the vortex of violence, the Hindus were a distinctive strand in the social tapestry of the province—they were treated as members of the tribe holding sway over the area where they lived. Balochistan’s minister for minority affairs and human rights, Engineer Basant Lal Gulshan, told Outlook, “Baloch Hindus have lived here before the Muslims came and have always been protected by tribal leaders. Why, Nawab Akbar Bugti (killed during the Musharraf era) would say that Hindus are like the hair on your chest and very dear. Of course, the new generation of tribals are different.”
Perhaps circumstances have transformed the younger generation. The social fabric of the province was torn asunder as the secessionist movement gathered momentum and the state adopted repressive measures to crush the rebels; the rise of Islamists and the growing culture of violence undermined the moral authority of traditional leaders. Islamabad’s neglect of the province has led to the breakdown of the law and order machinery, enabling criminal gangs to operate with impunity. Says Kamaluddin Ahmad, a businessman who has shifted from Quetta to Karachi, “These kidnappings are not religiously motivated, the Hindus have been caught in the crossfire. They are easy prey as they readily pay ransom after being kidnapped.”
PML(Q) leader Marvi Memon meets Lal Gulshan and members of the Hindu community.
Gulshan concurs on this: “Balochistan is reeling under the terror that has gripped the entire country. Hindus are easy targets as they readily pay the ransom. The community has lived in peace, you will never find a Hindu traitor. It’s only when life becomes difficult that they migrate to other parts of Pakistan or abroad.” Gulshan cites the example of Gardari Lal Bhatia, a politician-businessman whose family had to mortgage their property to pay the ransom to kidnappers. Financially ruined, Bhatia migrated to India.
Causes for kidnapping apart, there’s no denying that the Hindus in Balochistan have a perilous existence. The Balochistan Home Department says 291 people were abducted for tribal or political rivalries; another eight were kidnapped for ransom—most of them Hindus. In the provincial assembly debate on January 25, though, former minister Jay Prakash quoted a higher figure of 20 Hindus who were abducted last year. Eight or 20, both figures seem an insignificant number for a strife-torn province but is large enough to undermine the confidence of a community as small as the Hindus. A Hindu businessman told Outlook, “I have no choice but to leave the country. I’m in touch with relatives abroad, some in India, to help my family. It’s not easy to migrate either but it’s better than the fear that we live with every day.”
There’s no official statistics available, but locals confirm that Hindus are gradually trickling out of Balochistan—to destinations as far as Canada but mostly to India next door. Some claim that at least 400-500 families have moved out over the last decade. This is indeed alarming for the small community. For Pakistan, it’s a gauge to measure the depths to which it has fallen.