Pakistan’s ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), suspended a senior leader on the weekend for putting up posters attacking the minority Hindu community. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government managed to dodge the bullet on this occasion, there is a growing bigotry against the country’s minority Hindus.
Last week, anti-Hindu banners affiliated with PTI surfaced on Lahore’s Mall Road to commemorate Kashmir Day. The banners, put up by the PTI’s Punjab wing, depicted the party’s Lahore general secretary Mian Muhammad Akram Usman, along with Imran Khan and the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, echoing the Urdu saying “Hindu baat se nahi, laat se maanta hai” (A Hindu doesn’t understand words, only kicks).
After backlash on social media, the banners were taken down, with Usman tweeting an apology, alleging that the printer misunderstood instructions and wrote “Hindu” instead of “Modi,” that is, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Notwithstanding the complete lack of any similarities between the two words when written in Urdu, it is unlikely that any government-backed banners would be placed without being proofread on Lahore’s Mall Road – a central avenue where the Punjab Assembly, Governor House and Lahore High Court are also situated.
Minorities under attack
Ironically, this came at a time when minorities in both India and Pakistan are facing majoritarian bigotry and political attacks. This is a legacy of the 1947 Partition when Pakistan was created as a “safe haven” for Muslims while India chose to take a pluralist path, even as communal tensions continued to simmer. Under the Modi government, a controversial citizenship law that excludes Muslims has sparked nationwide protests, some deadly, in India.
This is not the first instance that an office bearer of the incumbent PTI government has been guilty of religious hate speech against the Hindu community. In March last year, Punjab government spokesman Fayyaz-ul-Hassan Chohan, in a tirade against the Indian leadership, mocked Hindu beliefs.
While Chohan was initially fired from the Punjab government by PTI over his anti-Hindu remarks, he rejoined the provincial cabinet three months later as the minister of forestry, fisheries and wildlife. In December, Chohan was reappointed as the Punjab government spokesman.
Even though a senior PTI leader, federal Minister of Human Rights Shireen Mazari, has condemned the anti-Hindu posters in Lahore, calling them “shameful and ignorant,” party insiders confirm that no action against the Lahore general secretary is likely to be taken given the precedent set over Chohan.
For Pakistani Hindus, government representatives’ continued conflation of India with Hinduism continues to encourage an atmosphere of intolerance and bigotry. “There are [more than] 4 million Hindus in Pakistan. There are [more than] 200 million Muslims in India. Minorities on both sides of the border suffer because humanity is the biggest minority on both sides,” said Pakistani rights activist Kapil Dev.
“These banners reflect nothing but hate which is often spewed against Hindus in [a] fit of [jingoistic] emotions. These are not typo errors by printers, but a real form of hate instilled in us through curricula [and] books in which Hindus are depicted as cunning, untrustworthy, filthy, etc,” he added.
Critics have long identified school curricula as a major source of anti-Hindu sentiment in Pakistan. It is common for books to describe Hindus as those “trying all means to harm Muslims” or as a community “based on injustice and cruelty.” Historians note that such a narrative often echoes the slogans of the separatist movement of the 1940s in what was then British India that led to the creation of Pakistan. The movement, based on the so-called Two Nation Theory, which deemed Muslims and Hindus as two different mutually antagonistic nationalities, paved the way for Pakistan to resort to religious rhetoric while engaging in political or military warfare with India.
A tortured legacy of hate
Amid continued hostility with India over the decades, the Islamist narrative in Pakistan has led to the marginalization of religious minorities, including the local Hindu community. Only around 5% of Hindu worship places at the time of Partition remain in the country, according to a Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement (PHRM) survey. According to a 2019 Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report, at least 1,000 non-Muslim girls are forcibly converted to Islam every year, most of them belonging to the Hindu community.
Forced conversion, false blasphemy accusations and vandalizing of temples remain among the greatest concerns for local Hindus. Last year’s attack on three temples in Ghotki, a town in Sindh province, after a Hindu principal of a local school had been accused of blasphemy epitomized the threat of violence that looms over the community, which has witnessed several major attacks on its localities and places of worship. Other religious minorities in the country have suffered similar fates.
Over the past year, the plight of religious minorities has been the focus of conflict between India and Pakistan. The move by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to revoke the special status of the disputed territory of Kashmir in August and the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) have been interpreted by the Pakistani leadership as Hindutva-led subjugation of Muslims. Since August, Imran Khan has repeatedly warned of a “Muslim genocide” at the hands of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in India at multiple domestic and international forums, including the United Nations General Assembly.
The BJP regime led by Modi defends its actions in Kashmir as necessitated by “Pakistan-backed” jihadist insurgency. The BJP leadership further argues that the preference given to non-Muslims in the CAA is due to their status as persecuted minorities in Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. While defending the CAA, Modi dedicated large chunks of a parliamentary speech last Thursday to Pakistan’s violations against the non-Muslims, most notably Hindus, over the years.
Critics argue that the condemnation of the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) ideology in India by Imran Khan and his government is significantly weakened by the violations against religious minorities in Pakistan, especially those spearheaded by the ruling party.
“When we fail to punish Fayyaz-ul-Hassan Chohan it definitely affects our case. If a blasphemy case had been launched against him [for insulting Hinduism], such incidents wouldn’t be repeated over and over again,” argued one of PTI’s own leadership figures, Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani. “Hindutva is no religion; there are extremists in India, just like there extremists in Pakistan. We should stop appreciating our extremists. India should deal with its own internal politics and Pakistan should deal with its own. Kashmir, meanwhile, is a bilateral issue.”
Observers further highlight that Pakistan’s own Islamist status quo, including Islamic laws in the country’s constitution, hinders its critique of India’s usage of religion in politics.
For many, Pakistan’s condemnation of the BJP’s Hindu nationalism rings hollow given the country’s own creation and adherence to Muslim nationalism. Similarly, Islamabad’s ostensible concerns over India distancing itself from its secular roots is perceived as bizarre, given that secularism continues to be a taboo in Pakistani politics.
Pakistan’s continued viewing of Kashmir from a religious and sectarian lens has also weakened its case in the international arena. “We are selling different slogans ‘Kashmir ko azaad karo’ [make Kashmir independent] and ‘Kashmir banay ga Pakistan’ [Kashmir will become Pakistan] to different audiences. They are inherently contradictory,” said veteran activist Ibn Abdur Rehman, former chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and founding chairman of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace.
“Similarly self-defeating is the influx of religious ideology in the political conflict,” Rehman said. “Now we are seeing new forms of bigotry at the hands of [the] Pakistani government. It is thuggery that they are now putting it on official banners that they will beat up people belonging to a different religion.”