Pakistan’s religious minorities are at the receiving end of majoritarianism. The country is also facing falling numbers of minorities. At the time of Pakistan’s formation, the total population of minorities including Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, and Buddhists etc. was 28%. The Hindu population of then East Pakistan was around 22%. However, today, the minorities of Pakistan are less than 4%.
The founding father of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had envisioned a “secular” Pakistan. But, even during his lifetime, fundamentalists rooted for a “state” religion, which finally culminated into Pakistan becoming a religious nation in 1980’s under President Zia ul Haq.
The persecution against minorities has been the narrative of Pakistan for decades now. Archiac laws and fear of frivolous charges have made religious minorities extremely insecure.
The United States said, it is “deeply concerned” over reports of human rights abuses and discrimination faced by people in Pakistan because of their faith. Washington has urged the Khan government to uphold the rule of law and the freedoms enshrined in the country’s Constitution. US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice G Wells in a statement to the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Non-proliferation of the House Foreign Affairs Committee hoped that the reforms Pakistan is undertaking under its current IMF plan will lay the foundation for better economic management and growth, leading to an improvement in the democratic system and human rights situation.
In recent years, there have been troubling trends within Pakistan, including shrinking space for civil society and media freedom. Pressure on the media and civil society- including harassment, threats, and financial and regulatory action, has increased over the past year.
Ms. Wells said, ‘the US continues to urge the Pakistani government to uphold the rule of law’. This includes the right of groups that criticise the leadership and security establishment. The international community is also concerned with Pakistan’s problematic registration policy for international non-governmental organisations, as it impedes the ability of reputable and well-respected organisations to do important work that benefits the Pakistani people.
The State Department engages regularly with provincial and federal authorities, as well as with other affected stakeholders, including civil society organisations, politicians, activists, religious leaders, and journalists, to convey this message and to support those working to improve the lives of the Pakistani people, the US Acting Assistant Secretary of State said.
The US administration is deeply concerned about reports of human rights abuses and discrimination faced by Pakistanis because of their faith. In many cases, these abuses are perpetrated by non-state actors. She said, Pakistan has taken steps to rein-in virulent terrorist organisations posing a direct threat to the State, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
The Pakistan Supreme Court also took an important step in January 2019 by upholding its own October 2018 acquittal of a lady accused of blasphemy, which subsequently enabled her safe departure from the country.
The court’s verdict emphasised the necessity of inter-faith tolerance and not “curtailing the rights” of members of religious minority groups, both of which are critical to improving religious freedom in Pakistan.
However, there was strong opposition to the verdict from hard-line elements in the country. The Imran Khan government was forced to defend the court’s decision. Prime Minister Imran Khan had stated, the verdict was decided “according to Pakistan’s constitution”.
Nevertheless, Pakistan’s laws and policies continue to discriminate against members of the minority communities and sects such as Shias and Ahmadiyas. Islamabad’s continued enforcement of blasphemy laws, which has resulted in dozens of Pakistanis on death row or serving life sentences in prison, as well as incidents of mob violence following blasphemy allegations, remain deeply troubling.
The overall situation had prompted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to designate Pakistan a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ under the US International Religious Freedom Act in 2018.
Script: Kaushik Roy; AIR: News Analyst