Minority rights are suddenly the new ground of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry

A general rule of South Asian politics might be that every action India takes has an equal and opposite reaction to Pakistan. This may not be entirely true, but it gives an idea of ​​how Pakistan continues to define itself against India and how ideas and developments in the country seem to be forming in response. to those who perform on the other side of its eastern border.

In India, for example, since its re-election last May, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has elevated its Hindu majority to the rank of a driving force in government. This more assertive ideological approach has included the revocation of the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir (India’s only Muslim-majority state), the exercise of the National Citizens Registry (NRC) in Assam designed to identify undocumented residents. , and its companion, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which provides a pathway to citizenship for these undocumented residents, as long as they are not Muslims. The latter has sparked continuous protests for fear of depriving India’s 200 million Muslims of their rights.

Adding to the tension, in November India’s Supreme Court ruled that the Hindu community had the right to build a temple to Lord Ram at the site of the 16th-century Babri Mosque, which was destroyed by Hindu crowds in 1992 (an event that was the catalyst for the rise of BJP). This decision is deeply symbolic of the way India is transforming and the insecurity felt by Indian Muslims.

And as India’s Hindu majoritarianism became more pronounced, its counter-force began to take shape in Pakistan.

If the Pakistani government is genuinely seeking to change the oppressive and alienating reality of its minority communities, then this is a great positive, even if it was only inspired by a game of one-upmanship with India.

Last week in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, a Hindu temple that was seized from Partition in 1947 was returned to local Hindu rulers. A 2014 survey by the All-Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement found that at the time of partition there were 428 Hindu temples in Pakistan. Yet in 2019, there were only 20 operating nationwide, with most having been seized and converted for other purposes, or badly damaged in retaliation for the destruction of the Babri Mosque. But now the Pakistani government plans to restore and return 400 of these temples to Hindu communities across the country.

It seems that as minorities are increasingly threatened in India, the Pakistani government has suddenly developed a keen interest in minority rights.

To compound this perception of Pakistan’s new concern for its Hindu minority, Prime Minister Imran Khan last week suspended the secretary general of his party’s Lahore branch after a series of posters appeared on the streets of the city encouraging violence against Hindus. Khan also recently issued a stern rebuke to Pakistanis who attempt to convert non-Muslims to Islam by force, and last year called on the provincial governments of Punjab and Sindh to initiate investigations into the kidnapping. and the forced marriage with Muslim men of a pair of Hindu teenage girls.

In another act of religious awareness, in December, the Pakistani government approved a proposal to establish a corridor that will allow Indian Hindu pilgrims to access a temple in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. This proposal is based on the recently opened Kartarpur Corridor, which successfully provides direct access for Indian Sikhs to one of their holiest sites just across the Pakistani border.

Yet these initiatives still face considerable cultural and institutional obstacles when seeking to address Pakistan’s approach to its minorities.

When Pakistan was created, the idea of ​​its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was to establish a secular state for Muslims on the subcontinent, rather than an overtly Islamic state. Yet, as a country founded as the homeland of one religion, it has become difficult to prevent religion from becoming its dominant operating goal. The 1977 coup and the decade-long Saudi-backed military rule of General Zia-ul-Haq – strongly encouraged Sunni Islam, creating both a state and a civil society who have systematically marginalized other religious groups (and other Islamic denominations). This included the creation of openly Islamic education and justice systems, including a vague and malleable blasphemy law that leaves minorities walking on eggshells.

Through this Sunni majorityism, Ahmadis have been declared non-Muslim by the Pakistani parliament, while Hindus, Christians and Sikhs have faced social exclusion, with difficulties in obtaining jobs, bank loans and a lodging. These communities have often been the target of organized community violence, bombs having exploded in their neighborhoods, or have been the subject of forced conversions. Those who can afford to emigrate have done so in large numbers.

If the Pakistani government is genuinely seeking to change the oppressive and alienating reality of its minority communities – and recognizes the region’s shared religious nature – then this is a great advantage, even if it was only inspired by a game of outbid with India. . While it seems unlikely that Pakistan will fully embrace the secular pluralism that India is now abandoning, any initiative that gives Pakistani minorities greater capacity to practice their religion, and more freedom against coercive actions and restrictive practices. , will surely be welcome.

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