Tuesday, Sep 26, 2023

Asphyxiating Minorities

Asphyxiating Minorities

It is the state's bigoted approach that has exacerbated majoritarian religious violence in Pakistan, as religious and sectarian minorities live under a pall of enveloping insecurity and fear of persecution.


Pakistan is increasingly failing to protect its minorities for two broad reasons: principally, rising religious intolerance and the space ceded to violent ideologies. 

—Sherry Rehman, former Ambassador to the US, 2011

Little noticed amidst the ongoing pitched battle led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), against the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)-led federal government, a group of protesters from minority communities held a rally in Badin district of Sindh on August 16, 2014, against the current government's failure to protect minorities from communal atrocities, including kidnapping-for-ransom, killings on religious grounds and abduction of girls for forced conversion.

Religious violence is endemic in Pakistan and the security situation of intra and inter-religious minorities is precarious. The National Assembly (NA) while observing the National Minorities Day on August 11, 2014, acknowledged the catastrophic proportions of the problem and unanimously adopted a resolution to condemn the "brutal killings" of religious minorities and rejecting all forms of discrimination against them in the country. The resolution, tabled by religious affairs minister Sardar Yousaf, urged the government to take concrete steps to establish and maintain interfaith harmony in order to safeguard fundamental rights of minority communities as enshrined in the constitution.

The resolution came in the wake of a recent targeted attack on a Sikh trader in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. On August 6, 2014, unidentified masked terrorists shot dead a Sikh shopkeeper, identified as Jagmohan Singh, at Khushal Bazaar in the Hashtnagri area of Peshawar, the provincial capital. Lamenting the pervasive sense of insecurity, the chief of the Karachi-based Pakistan Sikh Council (PSC), Sardar Ramesh Singh, noted, "This is not the first time our community was attacked in KP. The Sikh community in the province is under constant threat... many Sikh families have left the area over lack of security." Recalling the acts of violence against the besieged Sikh community, Member of Provincial Assembly and PTI leader, Soran Singh, observed, “In the last one year, at least three members of the Sikh community have been killed in the settled districts.”

Incidents of violence against the Sikhs in Pakistan have a long history. In 2010, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists exhibited their barbarism by beheading two Sikh men in the Khyber and Orakzai Agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and sent their heads to the Bhai Joga Singh Gurudwara  in Peshawar. The victims were identified as Jaspal Singh and Mahal Singh. Two of their companions, identified as Gurvinder Singh and Gurjit Singh, were held captive by the terrorists. This spine chilling incident came after repeated threats to the community to convert to Islam. 

The seeds of violence against the Sikh community were sown in 2009. On April 30, 2009, the TTP Orakzai Chapter banished 50 Sikh families from the Agency for non-payment of jizya— a tax levied by the early Muslim rulers on their non-Muslim subjects. According to media sources, TTP had occupied the houses and shops of Sikhs and auctioned their valuables for PKR 0.8 million in the Qasim Khel and Feroz Khel areas of the Agency. The terrorists had demanded PKR 12 million as jizya but had only received PKR 6.7 million. This demand was a follow-up of an earlier precedent. On April 15, 2009, the Sikhs had conceded to TTP demands and had paid PKR 20 million as 'protection' money as a result of which the terrorists vacated occupied Sikh areas and also released an abducted Sikh leader, Sardar Saiwang Singh. The Sikhs were guaranteed protection, but the terrorist reneged on their promise. The latest August 6, 2014 incident exhibits the pattern of violence that has evolved over years against the unprotected minorities in the country.

As temperatures of intolerance soar in Pakistan, its largest religious minority, the Hindus, representing 1.6 per cent of the then total of 132 million according to the 1998 Census, continue to face the fury of frenzied mobs over false or unverified allegations of blasphemy, and are also subjected to forced conversions. There are repeated incidents of burning of their religious books and places of worship. On March 15, 2014, for instance, an angry mob burnt a temple and a Dharamsala (rest house for pilgrims) in the Larkana district of Sindh over unproved allegations of a Hindu boy desecrating the holy Qur'an. A week later, on March 28, 2014, three armed assailants entered a temple and desecrated it in the Latifabad area of Hyderabad (Sindh) district. Later, on May 14, 2014, PML-N lawmaker Ramesh Kumar Wankwani told the NA that around 5,000 Hindus migrate from Pakistan to India and other countries every year due to religious persecution. The Hindus in Sindh have long been subjected to incessant intimidation and vandalism.

Next in the line of fire is the second largest minority group, the Christians, who represent 1.59 per cent of the country's population (1998 Census). This helpless community has faced the wrath and terror of the Islamist extremists, on the one hand, and politically motivated judicial discrimination, on the other. The abuse of the blasphemy law— which imposes a mandatory death penalty for any act under its purview— has led to the relentless persecution of the Christian community, resulting in large numbers among them seeking asylum abroad, particularly in Australia and Canada. Apart from Taliban violence, the asylum seekers are the ones who have been attacked for committing the 'crime' of blasphemy. According to the President of Pakistan Christian Congress (PCC), at least 90 per cent of Pakistani Christians favour Refugee Status from United Nations (UN) after rising violence.

In the deadliest of attacks on Christians in the country, at least 79 worshippers, including 34 women and seven children, were killed, and another 130 were injured when two suicide bombers attacked a Christian congregation at the historic All Saints Church in the Kohati Gate area of Peshawar on September 22, 2013. TTP's Jandullah faction claimed responsibility for the attack, declaring, in a statement to the media, "Until and unless drone strikes are stopped, we will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani land. They are the enemies of Islam, therefore we target them."

There has also been a phenomenal increase in the number of blasphemy cases, another index of violence. Among the most notorious of these involves a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was arrested and sentenced to death by hanging on November 9, 2010 for committing blasphemy after an argument with fellow female workers at the farm where she worked. Asia is still languishing in jail and the case has sparked international reactions. It was this internationally recognised case that led to two high profile murders over the blasphemy issue. On January 4, 2011, the Punjab governor Salman Taseer, was murdered by one of his bodyguards, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, for his public denunciation of the blasphemy law and advocacy for Asia Bibi. This was followed by the March 2, 2011, assassination of federal minister for minority affairs and leader of the Christian community, Shahbaz Bhatti, for openly speaking out against the controversial law. Blasphemy cases are overwhelmingly registered on flimsy evidence, often the testimony of a single Muslim witness with a personal animus against the victim. Worse, when acquittal results after years of incarceration, the victims have, in many cases, simply been murdered by terrorist formations on their release.

There has been an increase in the number of blasphemy cases in Pakistan since 2001. A report by Center for Research and Security Studies, 2013, enumerated a single case in 2001, rising to 80 complaints in 2011. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) World Report 2013, notes that at least 16 people remained on death row for blasphemy, while another 20 were serving life sentences in 2012. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) noted that, during 2013, as many as 39 cases of blasphemy were registered against Pakistani citizens, including Muslims, Christians and Hindus.

Blasphemy accused, moreover, are not safe even after being acquitted. In one incident, on March 22, 2014, Ashraf Gola, a former chairman of a District Council, was shot dead while he was travelling along with a friend, Iftikhar Ahmed, in his car near Pind Dadan Khan in Jhelum district of Punjab. Gola had recently been acquitted in a blasphemy case, but remained under threat from extremists.

Earlier, on October 19, 2012, a man, identified as Sajjad Hussain, who was acquitted in a blasphemy case by a District and Sessions Court in Lahore, was shot dead by two terrorists, identified as Sheikh Zeeshan and Awais Ahmed. The accused surrendered to the Police saying that they had killed a "blasphemer" and had no regrets over their action.

Extremist groups successfully target religious minorities and anybody who dares to speak out in their defence, including government officials. Judges and lawyers have also come under threat for defending and acquitting blasphemy defendants. On May 7, 2014, Rashid Rehman, a Human Rights lawyer and HRCP Regional Coordinator in Punjab, was shot five times by two unidentified militants at HRCP office on Kutchery Road in Multan district. He later succumbed to his injuries. His assassination was preceded by death threats that he received for his human rights activities, especially his denouncement of repression of religious minorities and the misuse of blasphemy laws in the country. While defending the case of one Junaid Hafeez, an accused of blasphemy, on April 9, 2014, Rehman was threatened with death by four men, including two lawyers, identified as Zulfiqar Ali Sindhu and Sajjad Ahmad Chawan, in the court room in Multan Central Prison. No action was taken against those who threatened Rehman, nor was he provided any security. No further steps have been taken thus far, and the killers have not been arrested.

Like inter-religious minorities such as Sikhs, Hindus and Christians, intra-religious minorities, particularly including, Shias and Ahmadis (but also including elements within Sunni sects, such as the Barelvis) have long been targeted and persecuted by Islamist extremists. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 3,922 people have been killed in sectarian violence since 2001. Of these, 2,271 were Shias; were 173 Ahmadis; another 51 Tablighi Jama'at members (all data till August 24, 2014). .

Taking note of the persecution of Ahmadis, the Annual report of the United States (US) Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published on April 30, 2014, urged the US to add Pakistan to a blacklist of violators of religious freedom, observing that the Ahmadi community suffers “apartheid-like” conditions in the country. The US Commission's concern was further extended to Shias and other non-Muslim communities, and the report voiced alarm over the treatment of Hindus, Christians and Shia Muslims, and urged Pakistan to improve its treatment of religious minorities.

According to the USCIRF report titled “Violence towards Religious Communities in Pakistan”, published in August 2014, moreover, over the one-year period from July 2013 to June 2014, at least 430 people were killed in a total 122 attacks against minorities. These include 222 Shias in 54 attacks; 128 Christians in 22 recorded incidents; 10 Ahmadis in 10 such attacks; and two Sikhs in three attacks. There are four attacks recorded on the Hindu community in this period, with no fatality reported. 68 victims belonged to other religious/sectarian groups, in 29 attacks.

In the corresponding period of the preceding year, a total of 567 people were killed in a total of 150 religiously motivated attacks, including 514 Shias killed in 54 attacks; 17 Ahmadis in 40 attacks; seven Christians in 32 attacks; two Hindus in 10 attacks; and one Sikh in 2 attacks. 26 'others' were killed in another 12 incidents.

Worrying over the worsening religious persecution in Pakistan, the US State Department in its Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, on July 29, 2014, pointed out that Pakistan’s Constitution and laws restrict religious freedom and practice: “Although the Constitution declares that adequate provisions shall be made for all citizens to profess and practise their religious beliefs freely, other constitutional provisions and laws impose limits on this right.”

It is high time that the Nawaz Sharif government breaks the silence over Pakistan's pernicious and inequitable blasphemy law and ensures freedom and security to all its citizens. While Islamabad has come under international pressure to repeal the blasphemy law and take effective steps to protect religious minorities, the truth is that extremist and fanatical forces continue to persecute and murder under an umbrella of effective state protection, where cases against perpetrators of such violence are not registered, or are not pursued through serious investigation and prosecution. It is the state's bigoted approach that has exacerbated majoritarian religious violence in the country, and religious and sectarian minorities live under a pall of enveloping insecurity and fear of persecution.

Ambreen Agha is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy: the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal


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