Event ReportsPublished on Jan 13, 2016
Even Jinnah’s dreams shattered in Pakistan, says Ispahani

Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was a Shia Muslim; but today Shias are a minority in Pakistan which begs the question how did a nation with so much promise reach such backwardness?, wondered Mrs. Farahnaz Ispahani, author and a former Member of Parliament and advisor to President Zardari and Prime Minister  Benazir Bhutto.

Mrs. Ispahani was taking part in a discussion on her book, ‘Purifying the land of the pure-Pakistan’s religious minorities’ at Observer Research Foundation on January 11, 2016.

Taking the example of Yugoslavia, Ispahani noted that minorities in Pakistan have been discriminated against since the inception of the country. The desire was to make Pakistan the land of the pure; however the world only views Pakistan as insecure for religious reasons. An excerpt from the book that explains the progression of Pakistan’s policy for the minorities was then highlighted upon.

The book discussion was chaired by Mr Ashok Malik, Senior Fellow, ORF. The discussants were Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyer, (Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha), Mr. Vivek Katju (former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan) and Ms Suhasini Haider (Deputy Resident Editor & Diplomatic Affairs Editor, The Hindu).

Participants pointed out that Pakistan is never studied on its own without the Indo-Pak relationship in the background.

Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar said the existential problem of Pakistan has existed since or before Independence and Jinnah. He said, in an attempt to unite East and West Pakistan, the government decided to make Urdu the national language even though less than 5% of the population spoke the language. The leadership of Pakistan falsely believed that having a country with a uni-lingual language would help bolster a sense of unity and togetherness. However it failed to make the important choice between carving a plural South Asian identity and a non-plural west-Asian identity, he pointed out.

Mr. Vivek Katju discussed some essential points; one among them was the distinction between a Muslim homeland and an Islamic State. Although Pakistan was meant to be a Muslim homeland in Asia, its discrimination against Muslim minorities has prevented it from doing so. He also raised the important question of the necessity of a Muslim homeland existing only in a Muslim majority state and whether that meant that Muslims living as a minority in a country could not consider that country their homeland.

Ms. Suhasini Haider voiced her disapproval of the fact that as a journalist she has always covered Pakistan in relation to India, and not as a stand-alone country. Thanking the author, she stated that that this book had given her the chance to understand Pakistan on its own. Commending the author for being able to write critically about one’s own country, Ms Haider stated there was added responsibility on the Pakistan People’s Party to change the prevailing narrative against minorities, as the PPP was seen as the face of liberal politics in the country.

Earlier, author Mrs. Farahnaz Ispahani, who has been a Member of Parliament and an advisor to President Zardari and Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said the book examines the historical and social transitions that Pakistan has gone through in dealing with the different minorities within its borders.

The book is divided into four parts detailing what the author believes are changes in Pakistani identity -– Muslimisation (1947-51), Islamic Identity (1958-71), Islamisation (1974-88) and Objectives Resolution. Ispahani notes that since the time of Ayub Khan, till Zia-ul-Haq, there has been tremendous pressure on Shia’s and other minority groups to accept the Sunni form of Islam  The Ahmadi community has also been at the receiving end of discrimination in the country by being forbidden from calling themselves Muslims or calling their place of worship mosques. Leaders such as Zia-ul-Haq, who believed that there was no distinction between Pakistan and Islam, passed numerous draconian laws ‘Islamising’ the country; some of which took years to overturn.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who was known for his liberal socialist ideology too was unsuccessful in bringing about desired religious reform due to high pressure from the military and the Islamists. The Zakat and Ushr Ordinance in 1980 forced religious minorities to adhere to paying of Islamic taxes, irrespective of their religious faith. Such laws favored the majority Sunni population in Pakistan with complete disregard not only for non-Muslims, but Muslims of different sects as well.

Under Zia-ul-Haq, the number of blasphemy cases against religious minorities greatly increased. In addition churches, temples and other places of worship were destroyed and women and children were ill-treated. The Islamisation of education and school textbooks too had a lasting impact on Pakistan’s delicate social fabric as conflict within sects of Islam increased.

The discussion was followed by an engaging question and answer session, with questions posed to the author ranging from T Jihadi terrorism and extremists problems facing the country. A disturbed and disappointed Ms Ispahani pointed out that her country had already lost more than 60,000 people due to religious violence and called for those in change to take immediate and concrete steps to stop such brutality. Terming the current phase of Pakistan ‘militant hostility’, she stated had little hope for things to change, given the everyday news of torture and murder, including that of children, on the count of blasphemy, and a complete disregard for law and order.

(This report was prepared by Kriti Shah, Research Assistant, and Urvashi Sudhindra, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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