There are multiple variables that contribute to forced conversions in Pakistan. The disorientation of the State, counterproductive legislation, social imbalance in favor of religious extremists, a weak judiciary and most importantly, a destructive foreign policy that reduces the majority of Pakistan into “the other” are the most relevant variables.
Regrettably, these variables have led to attitudes that view Pakistan’s indigenous Hindu population as “the other”. At least two senior functionaries this month in their speeches refused to even acknowledge minorities. While this may not have been their intention, such insensitivity lends itself to destructive anti-Pakistani forces.
At the time of Partition, Pakistan’s Hindu population stood at close to 10%. There has been a precipitous decline since then. The first major decline in Pakistan’s population diversity took place following the 1971 military action against East Pakistan; now the independent country of Bangladesh. A significant percentage of Pakistan’s Hindu population resided in what became the independent country of Bangladesh. However, the decline in the Hindu population simply cannot be traced back to the tragic instance of 1971.
There have been persistent pressures of forcible conversions that continue to decimate Pakistan’s Hindu community at various levels.
After Partition, Pakistan’s Hindu community was the hardest hit. They not only had to prove their loyalty given the evolution of communal pressures, they also had to sustain the loss of significant parts of their professional and trader cadres who migrated to India. 70 years later, the pressure to convert has caused this migration outflow to continue to the present. As the Evacuee property Trust voraciously appropriated the abandoned properties of Hindus who migrated from the newly formed state of Pakistan, the pressure to force both migration and conversion intensified in the early years of Pakistan. These pressures culminated in tragic pogroms against the Hindu community.
When one highlights about the specter of religious extremism in Pakistan, the treatment of Pakistan’s indigenous Hindu population is one of the most pressing and oldest problems that urgently requires redress. The failure to reduce this issue is the direct result of neglecting the variables laid out earlier.
The disorientation of the State is the primary casus belli of forced conversions. From its very inception and before that as well, the State thought that a disproportionate emphasis on a particular, sectarian interpretation of faith would unite disparate ethnic and faith groups. The Objectives Resolution and the subsequent debate is an instructive marker in the Pakistani State’s disorientation. Liaquat Ali Khan encouraged hardline Deobandi clerics, like Taqi Usmani, into the political mainstream. The same Deobandi establishment had opposed the very creation of Pakistan. These injections of sectarianism into the very body politic of Pakistan lead to imbalances that continued to worsen over time.
The disorientation of the State lead to problematic legislation like the Objectives Resolution and the Second Amendment in 1974. This disorientation also lead to insecure leaders like Liaquat Ali Khan utilizing the crutch of sectarian clerics like Taqi Usmani for expanding their previously inconsequential support base.
They came to a head in 1977 when the State itself became sectarian in the shape of military dictator General Zia ul Haq. From then on, State resources were used to inject sectarian intolerance into every institution of the State. It also lead to an exponential increase in sectarian madrasah favoured by General Zia ul Haq and his Saudi and CIA sponsors for their “Jihad” against the Soviet “empire”. No government since then has been able to curtail the growth of these madrasahs.
The influx of these Saudi-sponsored Salafi and Deobandi madrasahs has fundamentally altered the social fabric in Sindh and Balochistan; the provinces with the heaviest concentration of Hindu population.
While there are instances of forcible conversations by sections of Pakistan’s landed elite, they pale in comparison to the systematic project by madrassah networks operating under the larger banner of JUI F, JuD and Wafaq ul Madaris Al Arabiya. The hardline Saudi-sponsored sectarian ideologies being propagated by these madrasahs are at odds with mainstream versions of Sunni and Shia Islam that is practiced by the vast majority of Pakistanis.
In its detailed report on forced conversions, DAWN does not elaborate sufficiently on the proportional role of the madrasah networks gestated since the time of General Zia ul Haq. It also dilutes a crucial development that could have stemmed the tide of forced conversions. This is in reference to the proposed Bill by the PPP Sindh Government against forced conversions.
In December 2016, the PPP provincial government of Sindh had passed legislation to stop forced conversion. The PML N Federal Government, in the form of its governor Saeed uz Zaman Siddiqui returned the bill after objections raised by MQM and religious parties like the Jamaat e Islami. The PPP government was pressured to review the bill.
Pakistan is the birthplace of Buddhism and Sikhism and one of the oldest Hindu cultures on the planet. For a nation to progress, it must value diversity and pluralism and grant its citizens equal rights. That was certainly the intention to Pakistan’s founder, Quaid e Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah who made this intention loud and clear in his 11th August 1947 address to the Constituent Assembly for the future direction of Pakistan.
The forced conversion of Pakistan’s Hindus and the kidnapping and intimidation faced by them is emblematic of deeper problems. How long can the State of Pakistan allow a vocal Gulf-sponsored minority to force itself on the rest of the population? Pakistan’s diversity is crucial to its social cohesion and progress and the forced conversion of Hindus must be confronted and challenged on legislative and ideological grounds. Otherwise, Pakistan will suffer.
Ali Ahmed is an IPI Resident Scholar specializing in counter-extremism.