Voices from Pakistan

Written by Teesta Setalvad | Published on: October 1, 1994

 
The courageous efforts of progressive individuals and groups – the women’s movement and the human rights’ movement – have brought to light increasingly brutal attacks on the lives and dignity of minorities, including women, in Pakistan. Radical theatre groups and dissenting historians, though small in number, join hands in the struggle to regain Pakistan’s lost secular, democratic ethos.

 
Hearteningly, however, it is the committed, if scattered voices of dissent and protest that provide a ray of hope for Pakistan’s future. The effort of secular, democratic trends in India, that have also been marginalised of late, must lie in allying with similar trends across the border, in Pakistan and Bangladesh. In this lies the possibility of a healthy and stable sub-continent. Combat reports
 
The streets of Lahore on the night of July 9 (1994) were plastered with glossy stickers baying for the blood of four blasphemers. Dr. Asma Jehangir, C. Qaisar, Father Julius and J. Salik were declared the worst blasphemers against the Prophet. The sticker circulated by Tehrik Tahaffuz-i-Namoos –i-Risalat (society for the preservation of the sancity of Prophethood) was also distributed through vendors at the newsstands.
 
Asma Jehangir’s presence in the esteemed company of three leaders of the minority Christian community came as no surprise and was a tribute to her personal biography: her relentless struggle within Pakistani courtrooms and outside, at risk to her life, for the cause of minorities and women, (see box).
 
The immediate provocation behind the sticker campaign was probably the previous day’s issue of Jang, which carried an interview with Maulana Azam Tariq, chief of the recently formed Anjuman-i-Sipah-i-Sahaba (a virulently anti-Shia organization) that carried a blistering attack on human rights organization in general. Like in India, human rights activists in Pakistan have, apart from receiving threats, periodically been labeled “traitors, anti-national and pro-minority.”
 
A large volume of the time and efforts of the movement for human rights and women rights in Pakistan, the struggle of dissenting historians and radical theatre, and even sections of the mainline media have been devoted to strengthening the secular and democratic ethos. Specifically, this has often meant fighting the discriminatory blasphemy laws – a legacy of the Islamization of laws set into motion by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and consolidated under the Zia regime – that have targeted religious minorities. The amended sections not only provide that the criminal offence of blasphemy against the Prophet is more serious than blaspheming against any other religion but also extend application of this offence to the privacy of a person’s residence.
 
The Hudood ordinance and the law of evidence enacted under Zia that included blatantly oppressive laws for women, especially her protection against rape, continues to victimize large numbers of women today. At least 387 of the 789 women in prison in Punjab alone have been charged with adultery – since the Islamic law of evidence is such that rapes can virtually not be proved in law, the victim of rape stands guilty of adultery by default. 
 
Undoubtedly, these closely, documented cases of rights abuse would not have received wide media attention but for the relentless efforts of progressive forces in Pakistan.
 
But do these voices of dissent reflect a growing majority of opinion? Or do these glaring instances of abuse; signal an irretrievable downward trend in Pakistan’s secular ethos?
 
“The law is only one deterrent against murder, social disapproval of the murderer is another and often possibly, a stronger check,” says Aziz Siddiqui, a prominent writer and civil libertarian, adding, “Farooq Ahmed was kissed and embraced by the police and hailed as a hero by Faisalabad maulvis for the murder he committed. Funds were collected for his defence and demands made for the posthumous trial of his victim instead! The Sessions Court judge who sentenced Gul Masih to death was said to have privately admitted that he had to be mindful of the presence of fierce-looking maulvis within the courtroom and outside.”
 
Ahmed’s victim was 46 year-old Niamt Ahmar, a Christian school teacher and poet of the Punjabi language who was stabbed to death after an anonymous poster alleging that he had committed blasphemy against the Holy Prophet – an allegation that could not be proved even by the murderer. On May 31, 1994, the Sessions Court of Faisalabad awarded 14 years imprisonment to the murderer but held that Niamt Ahmar had indeed given provocation for the offence.
 
According to the annual survey by the HRCP, 1993 saw more clashes, more killing, more incidents of violence within mosques and over possession of mosques than the preceding year. Members of one sect would not be caught dead in the mosque of another. Sectarian battles through airwaves lent a bitter twist of humour to this battle of sectarian superiority and hatred: in Lahore, the mosque in Mohalla Kashmiri Takia Sadhuan with its four minarets and 25 loudspeakers kept competing with Chinian Wali Masjid with the same number of amplifiers. A third mosque inside Mochi gate, in Mohalla Shian, too often joined the heat.
 
Most ironically, these spurts of religious intolerance speared on by the blatant use of mullah power are today being matched by rigid intolerance by some leaders of the minorities. Newspapers have recently reported that a Christian member of the National Assembly is all set to move a bill in the National Assembly not for a repeal or amendment of the blasphemy laws but containing a demand that any offence of blasphemy against Jesus Christ and the Prophets in the Quran should be enhanced to death!
 
Among the various religious and ethnic minorities, the Ahmadis belonging to the Ahmadis belonging to the Ahmadiya sect are the worst victims of the country’s anti-blasphemy laws, their chances of getting fair treatment by the police dim because feelings against them run very high, especially in certain sections of the Punjab. They are strictly barred, even today, from public performance of their religious rituals.
 
Early last year, the Supreme Court began hearing a petition challenging the prohibition on Ahmadi religious practices, on grounds that this prohibition was violative of their fundamental rights. They are prevented from using phrases like masjid for their place of worship, azaan for call to prayer, nikaah-i-masnoona for wedding, assalam-o-alaikum as form of greeting, inshallah, mashallah, and bismillah-ir-rahman-ir-raheem and in fact, disallowed from considering themselves Muslims.
 
Five months later, in a majority judgement, the Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld the prohibition saying that “the words and phrases particular to one religion if used by another amounts to imposture and forgery. Even Company Law, it said, protects trade marks and the Ahmadis should “coin” their own terminology! Religion is not a commercially valuable property, nor Islam a registered company or a minting factory, the Ahmadis argued.
 
Human rights violations against Hindus have also taken place. The confiscation of their only cremation ground in Rawalpindi, at the instance of fanatical zealots, generated a controversy with the HRCP stepping to investigate and help. Temples were destroyed in Sind in Pakistan where most of the Hindu minority resides, in retaliation for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and only some of these have been re-built.
 
It remains indisputable that in all the elections held in Pakistan since its independence, political parties representing the voice of religious extremism have never managed to win more than 3-4 per cent of the vote. How, then, does the writ of the fanatical Mullah still fire individuals and some sections to frenzy and brutality?

A large volume of the time and efforts of the movement for human rights and women rights in Pakistan, the struggle of dissenting historians and radical theatre, and even sections of the mainline media have been devoted to strengthening the secular and democratic ethos.
 
A part of the problem lies in the inability of all parties to openly condemn and sideline this voice of intolerance and extremism, however marginalised it may be. Says Justice Dohrab Patel, “Unwilling to displease religious parties and desirous of enlisting their support, it was the Nawaz Sharief government with a comfortable majority in parliament, that was responsible for enacting the notorious sections of the law related to blasphemy (until then an Ordinance), ignoring the advise of the Law and Justice Committee, into law.”
 
Even the Benazir Bhutto government, which has been shrill over its concerns for human rights in Kashmir, has been unable to adhere to its electoral promises, repeal this law of the Hudood ordinance that is blatantly discriminatory towards women. Under pressure from the mullahs recently, the law minister, Iqbal Haider’s recent statement that the government would amend the blasphemy law to prevent abuse had to be hurriedly withdrawn.
 
Coupled with this intolerance, that goes politically unchecked except for the efforts of individuals and organizations that function under threat, it is the easy availability of powerful (albeit illegal) arms, popularly termed by the media as the Kalshnikov culture and the widespread inflow of narcotics –a brutal legacy of the Pakistani government’s decision to welcome Afghan militants that has left a permanent scar on civil, Pakistani society—that adds a violent edge to these threats.
 
Says Shahid Nadeem, playwright and film producer who is busy filming his latest, private venture on the growing religious intolerance in Pakistani society, “Only four weeks ago I was filming a procession, from a distance, of a militant religious group that was visibly violent, with bearded maulanas flourishing high-tech weapons when one of our cameras blew. We had to abandon the exercise that day because we did not want to make our presence obvious. They have been known to get violent.”
 
The radical dissenting voice of the Pakistani intellectual was praiseworthy even in the more fearful days of the Zia regime. Many activists who were in exile during that period, including Nadeem (who was an Amnesty prisoner of conscience in that period), are strong detractors, even today, of the growing tendency towards intolerance in Pakistani civil society in general.
 

Peace, not War
 
A group of Indians and Pakistanis from different people’s organizations met in Lahore on September 2 to discuss the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. While expressing grave concern at the situation, the participants decided to hold a people-to-people dialogue aimed at securing peace and democracy.
A joint statement issued by them called for an outlawing of war between India and Pakistan, for a peaceful solution to the Kashmir dispute and for curbing religious intolerance. Participants from Pakistan included : I.A. Rehman, Director, HRCP, Khaled Ahmad, Editor of Aaj aur Kal, Dr. Haroon Ahmad, Karamat Ali, Dr. Mubarak Ali, Professor Mehdi Hasan, Shaheed Kardar, economist, Madeeha Gauhar, Nighat Saeed Khan, Hussain Naqi, B.M. Kutti, Anees Haroon, Iftikharul Haq, Professor Rashid Ahmad and Dr. Mubashir Hasaan.
 
Indian participants were : Nirmal Mukherjee, former Cabinet Secretary and Punjab Governor, Rajni Kothari, academician and former Minister of Planning, K.G. Kannabiran, human rights lawyer, Professor Dinesh Mohan, Gautam Navlakha, Kamal Chinoy, Tapan Bose, documentary film maker and human rights activist and Teesta Setalvad, editor, Communalism Combat.

 
Ajoka, a 10 year-old theatre group that pioneered protest street theatre in Pakistan also came into existence during Zia’s regime, the brainchild of director, Madeeha Gauhar. “We were born as a protest theatre movement and we have not wavered from our goal,” says Madeeha. (see page 11).
 
In the midst of these strong dissenting voices, it is the tendency to allow these increasing instances of indirect pressures – mounted as bids to theocratise society, puritanise social and cultural mores and terrorise non-conformity—to go largely unchallenged that bodes ill.
 
Apart from the intelligentsia and strong women and human rights groups in Pakistan, some sections of the English mainline media whether it is newspapers or magazines – though possessing a select readership – also reflect a refreshingly strong, critical voice.
 
“Pakistan has displayed conflicting tendencies,” writes M.B. Naqvi in Newsline, Pakistan’s popular news monthly and the main competitor to The Herald, “…In election after election the electorate has rejected orthodox religious parties. And yet, faced with bearded mullahs, successive governments and political parties have without exception knuckled under pressure. The mullahs have been allowed to dictate the terms of the political discourse. The fact of the matter is that the majority of our intelligentsia is basically secular-minded and liberally inclined…while there is undoubtedly a strong impulse towards medieval and fascist ideas among a section of the population… Given the fact that the human resources to block the spread of bigotry exist; the next step is to put the resources to use… The silence of the secular lobby will only be read as fear, which will only strengthen the mullahs’ stentorian voice of bigotry.”
 
Like in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been experiencing their own, exclusive brands of religious extremism! Each of our societies is seriously threatened by deliberate attempts, by a marginalised but vocal minority, to hark back to a medieval era, where notions of hatred and revenge governed popular mores and violence was the accepted method of settling scores.
 
For these brands of extremists, Muslim or Hindu, the conduct of their counterparts within one sub-continental boundary, is fuel to their propaganda as they make one minority “pay the price” for the action of a section of co-religionists across the border. The religious division of the sub-continent is ably suited to these periodic bouts of fisticuffs, the tragic loss of lives and property either way, incidental.
 
Why are secular, democratic forces across the subcontinent unable to forge a shared and common alliance across the borders when the unholy alliances of the Hindu extremist and the Islamic fundamentalist thrive unchecked? If the L.K. Advanis and the Bal Thackerays of the world survive politically on the shenanigans of the bearded and armed mullahs, is the joining of our hands across borders such an impossible dream?

 (This appeared in the October 1994 issue of Communalism Combat as its cover story)