By Yasser Latif Hamdani (Courtesy Daily Times)
Now that an idea of administrative distribution of provinces into new provinces has been conflated with the idea of sub-national homelands within the Pakistani federation for linguistic groups, it was only a matter of time before a religious minority would raise its own demand for a province of their own.
Pakistan Christian Congress chairman Dr Nazir S Bhatti has cast the first stone and there will be more. In due course, Pakistani Hindus will, with justification, ask for a Hindu province and perhaps what will really stir the pot is if the Ahmedis ask for their own province in Rabwah (or Chenab Nagar as we have imposed on it). These are all justifiable demands arising out of the basic identity crisis because we have failed to evolve a secular Pakistani identity as Jinnah had hoped we would through a neutral and impartial state policy.
The much abused and misunderstood Two Nation Theory was a valid consociationalist counter-argument only in united India and had no application after partition, at least on a state level. Instead of heeding Jinnah’s words and forging in time a new Pakistani identity blind to religious differences, we chose to remain bogged down in subcontinental politics of the 1930s and 1940s, even defining Pakistan’s relationship with India along those lines.
Internally this has meant that we have failed to develop a consensus on a national identity. The idea was simple enough and perhaps best articulated by Faiz Ahmed Faiz in a paper he wrote on Pakistani identity a few decades ago. He suggested that Pakistan’s national culture and identity together constitute a mosaic that includes the majority’s Islamic culture, especially the syncretic sufi traditions of the region, the cultures of the sub-national groups, i.e. Pathan, Baloch, Sindhi, Punjabi, etc, and the cultures of religious minorities of Pakistan such as Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, etc.
Pakistan might well have developed this consolidated rainbow identity had misfortune not struck us in the form of General Zia. The narrow-minded and outrageous interpretations of an otherwise rational and progressive faith, interpreted by the very people who had once opposed the creation of Pakistan, were imposed on Pakistan. Pakistan was transformed under General Zia from a tolerant multi-religious, multicultural — albeit Muslim majority state — to a theocratic Deobandi-only dystopia. The result of this was progressive alienation of religious minorities from the national discourse. Having made particularistic sectarian religious identity non-negotiable, post-Zia Pakistan continued to exclude non-Muslims and it is therefore only logical that non-Muslim minorities demand their own sub-national homelands within Pakistan on the basis of the officially canonised ‘Ideology of Pakistan’.
So what can the PPP government do to help ameliorate religious minorities in Pakistan short of conceding the demand for new religious-identity based provinces? First of all, it must go back to the 1973 Constitution and add substantial safeguards for religious and sectarian minorities in Pakistan, including giving them a veto on any legislation that affects their rights in their discretion. Secondly, all discriminatory legislation that is used time and again to target non-Muslims should be scrapped immediately. Finally, the offices of president and prime minister should be opened up to all citizens of Pakistan regardless of religion, caste or creed. You will never achieve any practical equality unless you give the religious minorities the theoretical right to aspire for the highest office in the land.
The basic principle on which Pakistan was achieved was that a permanent majority ought not to dominate a permanent minority on the basis of numerical strength. Every action that we have taken, beginning from the way the Objectives Resolution was passed in the Constituent Assembly where all Muslims save one voted in favour and all non-Muslims voted against it, has been in negation of the fundamental principle on which Pakistan was founded. Therefore, unless there is a course correction, we are headed for disaster.