I vividly remember the New Year holidays spent in our ancestral village in central Punjab during the 1970s. Roaming the vast expanse of the flat fertile fields all day long seems far away now, and the surreal feeling of time standing still in the green idyll is hard to find. My uncle, himself a man of simple tastes, used to till his farmland with the help of a few Christian workers. There used to be such enjoyable banter and bonhomie on the tobacco and sugarcane farm that I preferred spending hours with my uncle and his Christian labourers during their weeding sessions to playing with my upper-caste Muslim cousins. Such was the society that existed in rural Punjab in those days. The issue of creed and the ensuing segregation is, in retrospect, far too subtle to notice when compared to the disturbingly pronounced levels of xenophobia to be found in today’s Pakistan. My insistence at times to eat with the labourers would be laughed off by one of the more humorous Christians, who would warn me that if I shared his lunch I would automatically become a Christian myself. Although the disturbing issue of untouchability seemed to fade in the momentary hilarity generated by the guffawing farmers, the underlying unease was not difficult to detect.
(Intriguingly, my uncle would only smoke the labourer’s hookah when no one from the village was present, a classic example of acceptable levels of racism practiced by a society collectively but showing solidarity with the downtrodden in private.)
A mere 20 kilometers away lies the village of Aasia Bibi, the low-caste Christian woman who challenged the order of prejudice and repression by quarreling with her tormentors, only to be booked and tried under Pakistan’s blasphmey law, a stick piously handed to the majority to “discipline” its disobedient minorities. (It is not unlike giving a neo-Nazi group space to persecute religious minorities via discriminatory legislation in today’s Europe. Imagine the outcry if the English Defence League of Britain were allowed to prosecute British Muslims, and Pakistanis in particular, for publicly wearing the shalwar kameez! )
Instead of empowering Pakistan’s minority communities (a euphemism for Christians, Ahmadis and Shias), the social chasm was deliberately widened by the state in the form of General Zia’s updated and expanded blasphemy laws. The centuries-old practice of untouchability was institutionalized and its pernicious long-term effects were conveniently ignored by the conservative religious right.
Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer’s crime was to express his views openly about the injustice inherent in Zia’s laws. Some say he was tactless to take up such a sensitive and explosive issue so openly. Ever since his call for the repeal of the unequal law, and his subsequent assassination by his own bodyguard, there are no plans afoot, it seems, to make legislative efforts at stopping the religious frenzy in Pakistan. The PPP, as was the case after Taseer’s ill-fated press conference in November 2010 till his murder in January 2011, still finds itself cowering under the anticipated right wing backlash. Were such a move to be announced. let alone debated and legislated in parliament, the PPP would be hounded to the grave. (The other major party in Pakistan is the PML(N), and it has always preferred to cozy up to its conservative vote bank over voicing its concerns on the injustice done to a small minority.)
According to Junaid Qaiser, a Christian activist who has authored a book on the plight of minorities ( Pakistani Aqliyaton ka Noha), the answer may not lie in bringing in new laws or repealing old ones. A lot more hinges on uprooting this society’s pre-conceived and well-entrenched abhorrence to pluralism, a seemingly forlorn target looking pretty much out of reach for at least a few generations.
The higher judiciary should keep in mind the ground realities surrounding blasphemy accusations going to court. (One very important factor is the power and influence of religious organizations in small towns and villages, making imaprtial investigations and fair trials a virtual impossibility, on paper a constitutional right for a citizen irrespective of race, colour or religion.) The vigilantism supported and encouraged by religious organizations often results in men with no previous criminal record committing murders in the name of religion. Such acts are not only applauded but also encourage indoctrinated youth to commit further acts of violence triggering an unending cycle which is ongoing for three decades.
So what has changed since Salmaan Taseer was brutally mudered by his police guard in 2011? The answer is not much. The tenuous balance of my youth, which could have been the starting point of a more tolerant and pluralistic society, has vanished due to its incessant erosion caused by military takeovers and dangerous religious indoctrination. Aside from a handful of sane and increasingly isolated voices in Pakistan’s electronic and print media, the intolerant and “righteous” version of Islam in people’s perceptions still holds sway.
Tariq Bashir can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on www.twitter.com/Tariq_Bashir