Every now and then something happens that highlights the precarious situation in which non-Muslim religious minorities are living their life in Pakistan. However, the gloss on the issues of religious minorities proves to be fleeting in nature. The pattern that has emerged from a number of recent incidents is that the government’s interest stays alive in such cases as long as they remain on the radar screen of the media. With the media spotlight having shifted to other issues, things come back to square one with religious minorities living their lives in the grip of fear, intimidation and exploitation.

The last three to four years have seen an alarming trend in the persecution of minorities with terrorist attacks directed at their places of worship and those who advocated their causes and spoke of a more inclusive, harmonious and tolerant polity. A study conducted by the Jinnah Institute titled, ‘A question of faith’ lists the instances of discrimination and social persecution the minorities have suffered in recent years.

“The events of 2010-11 have not occurred in a vacuum and are not atypical of Pakistani reality. These most recent attacks on religious minorities and the state’s tolerance towards this persecution are part of a long-term pattern of state complicity at all levels – judicial, executive and legislative,” the report says.

Before we go further, it is important to define the word, ‘minority’. According to the UN resolution passed in its 38th session, “Minority is defined as a group of citizens of a state, constituting a numerical minority and in a non-dominant position in that State, endowed with ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics which differ from those of the majority of the population, having a sense of solidarity with one another, motivated, if only implicitly, by a collective will to survive and whose aim is to achieve equality with its majority in fact and in law.”

While it is standard practice to refer to the Quaid-e-Azam’s historic speech to the first session of the Constituent Assembly, what is little known is the fact that the Lahore Resolution, which became the basis for the launch of struggle for freedom in the final phase also promised complete religious freedom and equality of rights to the non-Muslim minorities in the state of Pakistan. Para II of the Lahore Resolution reads:

“That adequate, effective and mandatory safeguards should be specifically provided in the constitution for minorities in these units and in these regions for the protection of their religious, cultural, economic, political, administrative and other rights and interests in consultation with them; and in other parts of India where Mussalmans are in a minority, adequate, effective and mandatory safeguard shall be specially provided in the constitution for them and other minorities for the protection of their religious, cultural, economic, political, administrative and other rights and interests in consultation with them.”

Mindful of the commitments of Pakistan’s forefathers, the framers of the 1973 Constitution inserted a number of provisions in it that guaranteed freedom to the religious minorities. For example:

n    “Every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion. (Article, 20-a)

n    Every religious dominion and every sect therefore shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institution. (Article, 20-b)

n    No person shall be compelled to pay any special tax the proceeds of which are to be spent on the propagation or maintenance of any other religion than his own. (Article 21)

n    The state shall guard the legitimate rights and interest of minorities, including their due representation in the Federal and provincial services” (Article, 36).

Despite these constitutional provisions, it is their implementation that matters the most. The minorities continue to feel discriminated against and their sense of insecurity is increasing. The deprivations felt by the minorities are multi-faceted. They range from legal discrimination to political and social discrimination. They have often expressed their reservations regarding Article 295-B & C of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), holding that these laws have often been abused by private persons to settle their personal scores to the detriment of non-Muslim communities.

At the political level, though the joint electorate has been restored, their marginalization has not been stemmed. They still have reserved seats in the national and provincial assemblies but they do not have any seat in the Senate. Their representation in the Services of Pakistan, armed forces and judiciary is also negligible compared to their population. According to the minorities’ leaders, their communities have to conceal their identities for fear of violence that leads to their under-representation. They have raised a demand that a fresh census should be conducted to ascertain their population.

It is not the political context alone. There are also deep-seated social and religious attitudes against the religious minorities. These adverse attitudes are steeped in the history of Crusades. The minorities are of the opinion that the country’s educational curricula do not do justice to their contributions. Thus the mindset of Pakistan’s children is shaped by the exclusive interpretation of history premised on negation of the contributions of minorities.

Noted human rights activists such as I.A. Rehman and Ms. Hina Jilani are of the view that due to a culture of rampant persecution, coercive conversations, abductions and forced marriages, the minorities are migrating from Pakistan. They are now under greater fear of violence at the hands of extremists. This feeling of insecurity gets compounded due to the inability of the state to come to their rescue when confronted with a threat to their survival.

It is about time that the state took some concrete steps to include the minorities in the national mainstream in line with the pledges of Pakistan’s founding fathers. The government did well to declare the 11th of August as the day of minorities meant to express solidarity with them. And there is much more that needs to be done. The following is instructive in this regard:

n    Revisit, review and revise the existing laws that the non-Muslim minorities say are abused to persecute them.

n    Add a section in Pakistan Penal Code which makes advocacy of religious hatred or incitement to discrimination or violence a punishable offence.

n    Undertake police reform and provide training to law enforcement agencies to ensure that these agencies seek to protect rather than abuse vulnerable groups. Improve investigation of the cases.

n    Engage in judicial reform and training to ensure that the judiciary, particularly at the district level, addresses bigotry and seeks to dispense justice.

n    Constitute a Minorities’ Authority comprising representatives of minorities to entertain complaints and ensure their rapid redressal

n    Legislate to stop forced conversions and make it a punishable offence

n    Remove biased texts from Educational Curriculum and make contributions of the non-Muslims part of syllabi.

n    Reserve seats in the Senate of Pakistan

n    Take appropriate measures to impart religious education to the minorities’ students according to their faith.

n    The syllabus for children in educational institutions should be revised and material against minorities be weeded out to promote harmony.

n    An Interfaith Council should be set up to promote interfaith harmony and engagement among the members of different communities.

n    The main religious festivals of all minority communities should be celebrated as national holidays

n    Trust properties should be managed and controlled by respective minority communities

n    Demand for census to ascertain population of minorities should be accepted.

n    A ban should be placed on organizations involved in promoting hatred, intolerance, extremism and terrorism.

n    The historic speech of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, delivered on August 11, 1947 in the first Constituent Assembly session, should be made an integral part of the Constitution of Pakistan.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.