Anthropology, genealogy and history suggest  they are the original and oldest people of the land

From time to time, I have highlighted the role of Christians to emphasise the inclusiveness of Pakistan. Christians joined Pakistan by choice and some also migrated from India. This decision was taken on behalf of over 500,000 Punjabi Christians by Christian leaders of the League. The Christian Speaker of the Punjab Assembly, SP Singha, Mr. Ralia Ram and Mr. Fazal Elahi represented Christians before Radcliffe’s Boundary Awards in June 1947.

Ayesha Jalal, in her book ‘Self and Sovereignty’, writes that the practice of untouchability and the “Muslimised” culture of the Christians also played an important role in their support of Pakistan. She quoted SP Singha, “They (the Christians) trust the Muslim more. In their dress, poor economic status and religious beliefs, Christians in the Punjab were closer to the Muslims. The widespread practice of chhut or untouchability against Christians was ‘a great sore in their hearts’ and they had ‘suffered a lot from social prejudices’.” Had this not been the case, the division of Punjab would have tilted grossly in favour of India. This was the biggest contribution of Christians to Pakistan.

Other contributions include legislation, national development, foreign policy, education, health and defence services. The role of Samuel Martin Burke as election petitions magistrate in 1945 to raising of Pakistan’s foreign office and acquisition of nuclear reactor from Canada has no parallel. C E Gibbons as the Deputy Speaker of the Constituent Assembly vociferously presented Pakistan’s Kashmir case in United Nations. The contributions of the Christians of Karachi in setting up and administering this once beautiful port city also called Uroos ul Bilaad, the ‘bride of cities’ will never be rivalled. Post partition, along with Parsees, they set up refugee centers and education institutions. The scores of each instrument played in Pakistan’s national anthem, in a blend of waltz and eastern music, were written by Tollentine, a bandmaster in the Pakistan Navy. The gallantry of Christian officers and soldiers in the defence services are etched in gold in the military archives. The first Pakistani soldier to die at Pandu in Kashmir War 1948 was Lance Naik Yaqoob Masih. The first PAF Officer to die for the country was Pilot Officer Novan Theodore Fazal Elahi. Christian jurists like Cornelius, Constantine, PN Joshua and Mr. Gill are legendary.

But this story of unrecognised devotion, repeatedly written by writers and historians but eclipsed in Pakistani textbooks and official history does not reflect the isolation Christians faced in a post-Jinnah Pakistan. Though ironic, the dilapidated condition of United Christian Hospital in Lahore set up in recognition of Christian services to Muslim refugees in 1947 represents the condition of the Christian people. They carry this stigma because they chose to become part of the Muslim Identity. In 1947, these 400,000 became the first group of internally displaced Pakistanis. The numbers of these homeless originals now swells to over 1.4 million. Most of the bonded labour in the Punjab is Christian.

As events unfolded, Christians became the biggest losers in the bargain for an elusive movement they thought would usher a classless society. Quaid-e-Azam’s 11 August speech to create this society evaporated in thin air. Cultural discriminations inherited from history were reinforced by religion and political exploitations to exclusion of Christians who genealogically are the original people of the land. The liberation from a Chhut stigma rather than bring relief made them homeless, menials and paleed. Christian’s liberation became an albatross that shamelessly hangs around their necks. This is despite Pakistan being signatory to numerous international conventions, agreements and treaties forbidding discrimination on ethnic, religious and other lines. Sometimes not by law but by convention and practice, this discrimination becomes a serious affront to human dignity. Pakistan stated in the United Nations in 2008 that it has no concept of Dalit and that it is free from such kind of prejudices, and the existing norms do not contain discrimination on the basis of caste or creed. However, in practice, Pakistan has pursued a discriminatory policy towards these displaced Punjabi Christians. CDA Islamabad in its report to Supreme Court shamelessly asserted that Christians in Islamabad pose a threat to Muslim majority in the capital.

Though Christianity in South Asia has historic roots via Central Asia, Taxila and Gilgit-Baltistan, they were too few before the British colonization of territories comprising Pakistan. According to Asif Aqeel a historian, “The 1855 census shows there were no native Christians in Punjab. With the efforts of missionaries, by 1881 there were only 3,912 native Christians who had come from various religious, social, economic and urban backgrounds… The landscape of Christianity in Punjab changed to homogenous and rural after a man from an ‘untouchable’ background, identified only by a single name, Ditt, converted in the village of Shahabdike in Narowal in 1873. Ditt invited others to convert to Christianity to get rid of untouchability and caste disabilities. Ditt’s people rapidly responded to the call and the number of Christians dramatically swelled in Central Punjab from 3,912 in 1881 to 511,299 by 1941.” These new converts were landless tillers of Sikh landlords.

Unfortunately, following the partition, the lands evacuated by Sikhs were allotted to Muslim migrants from India who with the help of the government started evicting these Christians from their ancestral homes. Mr. Singha protested in the Punjab Assembly that the ministers for refugee settlement and the revenue had approved three to four acres of land for each homeless Christian family of these villages. It was frustrating to know that these state documents had mysteriously gone missing from the secretariat. By 1951 the issue had assumed grave dimensions. In April 1952, C.E. Gibbon, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly stated, “I beg to discuss a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the grave situation arising out of the policy of the government in respect of the wholesale eviction of Christian Sepis, Athirst (atharhis) and tenants from their home holdings, thus rendering nearly 300,000 Christians homeless and on the verge of starvation, the consequences of which are too horrible to imagine.”

Tragically, these horrible consequences are being faced by Punjabi Christians through cultural influences and discriminatory state policies. Above speeches form part of parliamentary records, but no Pakistani government has shown the urgency to redress the wrongs.

The tragedy of the Christian landless is that they have endured multiple evictions. Initially, they travelled to deserts. When deserts became green, they were evicted.  Then they occupied government lands along filth drains. When cities expanded, they were evicted.  The exodus of Hindus in 1948, doing menial jobs in Sindh resulted in landless Christians taking over these jobs. The government rather than address the tragedy created conditions in which only Christians were recruited. According to Asif Aqeel, “the ruling Muslim League found Punjabi Christians a useful substitute for filling jobs left by fleeing Hindus.” The federal education secretary in 1980 was alarmed at the rising literacy rate amongst Christians for fear that ‘who would do the menial jobs’. The government hid land allocation files and uprooted hundreds of thousands of Christians from villages in the Central Punjab despite hue and cry by Christian legislators.  It is important to note that that most slums in Pakistan’s major cities are occupied by Christians of Central Punjab.

Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments need to dig out the parliamentary records and address the situation. Political parties and human rights organisations have to make this redressal a part of their manifestos. The media has to begin a national debate on this great wrong of history that stigmatises Pakistan Movement. New villages have to be raised for people who put their trust in Pakistan.