On a brief visit to Karachi last week, I attended a mass dedicated to Shahbaz Bhatti, the assassinated minorities’ minister, with my brother.
Held in St Patrick’s Cathedral, the ceremony was dignified and deeply moving. I had half-expected to see a few politicians, diplomats and members of our civil society at the occasion, but spotted just one old friend.
I first saw this lovely old cathedral when I enrolled at the nearby St Patrick’s School in the mid-1950s, and recall being awestruck when a Christian friend confidently told me that the statue of the Virgin Mary occasionally wept tears of blood. In those days, the entire Saddar area of downtown Karachi was an eclectic mix of Christians, Muslims, Parsis and Hindus, and this balance was reflected in our school. Catholic priests laid down the law at St Pat’s, and caning was frequent. Discipline was tough, and the standards high.
So going to the cathedral was a bit like travelling back in time. Except that this occasion was a sad reminder of how far Pakistan has moved away from its liberal, secular early days. Now, non-Muslims live under the Sword of Damocles that the blasphemy laws have come to represent for them.
Although none has yet been executed by the state for alleged blasphemy, at least a dozen have been killed in custody either by the police, or by other prisoners. So when Qamar Davis, a 51-year old Christian, died in Karachi jail recently, it was hardly surprising that few believed the police version that he had died due to a heart attack. His crime? He was convicted of having blasphemed against the Quran and the Holy Prophet [PBUH] in text messages he is supposed to have sent a business rival.
This entire grim episode reveals yet again how open the present blasphemy laws are to misuse against the hapless minorities. But even Muslims are not exempt. Recently, there was the bizarre case of a doctor in Hyderabad who chucked a medical company representative’s calling card into the wastepaper basket without even glancing at it. Unfortunately for him, his visitor’s name contained ‘Mohammad’, and this was enough for him to be locked up for a couple of days. Had he not been a Muslim, I’m sure he would still be in jail.
This raises a theological problem: if I delete an email that contains a revered Muslim name, would I be guilty of blasphemy? Indeed, people send out passages from the scriptures via the Internet all the time. Does hitting the delete button, or consigning the message to spam as soon as you see the subject tag render you liable to prosecution under our blasphemy laws?
Both Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were killed for suggesting that these laws, being man-made, could be amended so that they are not misused. First imposed by the British in a mild form that gave equal protection to all faiths in 1860, they were given their present shape by Gen Zia in 1986. So surely a discussion about the need to amend them is hardly an unthinkable notion.
There are many other indications of Pakistan’s rapid slide into a ‘Muslim-only’ country. Ancient Hindu and Jain temples in Sindh are being stripped of old stones, according to an email I received recently from an organisation called the Association for Water, Applied Education and Renewable Energy (AWARE).
One old mandir, in particular, has caught the attention of vandals: situated in Tharparkar district, the beautiful Durga Mata is being robbed of the stone skirting near its base by a contractor who was apparently issued an excavation licence by the government of Sindh. As this is the focal point of many Hindu yatrees in the area, many have protested, to little avail. Surely even our crass politicians can see how much damage this act is doing to our cultural heritage.
With this SOS from AWARE came several emails from concerned Pakistanis. One of them reads: “The campaign to preserve the temple can be symbolic of so much in today’s context — a reclaiming of secular values of equality and freedom and a right to preserve cultural and historical identities. The demolition must be seen as an attack of our culture, not someone else’s religious sensibilities or their site of divinity.”
The ugly, unadorned truth is that unless you are a Muslim, you cannot claim full citizenship in today’s Pakistan. And even faith in Islam is no longer a guarantee of equality: you have to be the right kind of Muslim. Sadly, this is the guiding principle in the increasingly intolerant country Pakistan has become.
It would appear that more and more, Pakistan’s civil society is channelling its protests into cyberspace where members comfort each other, and register their activism. While this is no doubt cathartic, I fear their expressions of outrage have little impact in the real world. Here, the streets have been captured by the extremists who, despite their relatively low numbers, can set the public agenda through violence and full-throated slogans.
This public agitation is captured and amplified by our largely irresponsible TV channels. As chat shows have shown time and again, sane, liberal voices are drowned out by loud, intemperate clerics who have no compunction about concocting any lie to win an argument. Our TV anchors are either biased in favour of their extremist guests, or too ignorant and intimidated to interrupt. Whatever the cause, the voices of reason are being silenced. Migrating into cyberspace won’t help. On this depressing note, I’d like to wish my Hindu readers a very happy Holi.