With ‘mandir to banega’, Pakistan is having its own ‘mandir wahi banayenge’ moment.
Authorities halting the construction of a Shri Krishna Mandir in Islamabad’s H-9 sector last week is yet another reminder of how the space for religious freedoms is shrinking in Pakistan. The temple would have been the first new place of worship for the 3,000 Hindus residing in the capital. But not anymore.
Marred with fatwas, religious bigotry, threats and political point scoring, the construction of the temple has now run into disputes. The other 16th century Ram Mandir in Islamabad’s Saidpur Village is just a tourist spot and Hindus are not allowed to pray in the temple.
Reconstructing temple against Islam’s spirit
What began as a goodwill gesture from the Prime Minister’s Office with a grant of Rs100 million for the temple construction, soon saw the religious and political groups go up in opposition. In one such decree, the Jamia Ashrafia madrassa ascertained that according to Sharia laws, it is not permitted for non-Muslims to build their new worship places or rebuild those which were in ruins. “This is a sin in an Islamic state.” The same was echoed by federal government’s ally and speaker of the Punjab Assembly, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi who said that only the repair of the existing places of worship of the Hindus, Sikhs and Christians was allowed, and that building a new structure was against the spirit of Islam.
Many had a problem with the temple being built on taxpayers’ money but it didn’t occur to anyone that Hindus as Pakistani citizens, too, pay their taxes. So why can’t the government spare money on their place of worship? The Kartarpur Gurdawara’s renovation, with much-hype and glitz, was made possible with the government money. Since that was in ‘national interest’, none of these religious and political charlatans dared squeak on it.
Unsurprisingly, succumbing before many religious pressure groups, City District Administration stopped work. When the Islamabad Hindu Panchayat halted the construction of the temple’s boundary wall, citing security reasons, a television channel proudly took credit for the same in ‘leading the anti-temple discourse’.
Now, the trespassers who no one is bothered to stop, desecrate the construction site, vandalise the temple’s foundation, chant slogans and shoot videos of themselves offering namaz with great pride. All this when an already beleaguered Hindu community in the capital feels helpless and threatened by such behaviour.
How a temple can shake the foundations of a republic that promises equal rights to the minorities is the sad reality of Pakistan.
Othering the religious minorities
Pakistan’s bias towards the minorities hasn’t surfaced overnight. Decades of othering the religious minorities as part of making a national identity lies at the root of this inherent bias. The glorification in the history textbooks of temple vandelisers like Mahmud Ghaznavi and at the same time hoping to show the world how Pakistan is a pluralistic society sounds delusional. You cannot preach one thing and practice another.
Pakistan faces some fundamental questions: what is Pakistan’s relationship with its minority citizens? What is the social contract between Pakistani Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and the State? If the Constitution gives rights as equal citizens and the freedom to practice religion, then why does the State let the pressure groups treat minorities as third-rate citizens?
Pakistanis who draw immense pride in watching New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardren’s mosque visits, don’t want their leaders to speak for their own minorities. If Nawaz Sharif, Bilawal Bhutto or Prime Minister Imran Khan mention religious freedom, their beliefs are questioned at once. Their reaching out to the minorities is seen as a sign of shame and appeasement, but Ardren’s actions signify greatness. The hypocrisy at play is laughable. When Nawaz Sharif became part of a Holi event in Karachi in 2017, a fatwa was issued against him, which said “Nawaz Sharif’s Holi speech has shaken the ideological foundations of Pakistan”. I wonder how weak these foundations are? Today, PM Khan’s images are shared on social media superimposed on Hindu religious figures.
While mistreatment of minorities is an issue that’s as old as Pakistan, the Imran Khan government and his party’s track record on appeasing the Islamists is no secret. From supporting an anti-blasphemy sit-in against the Pakistan Muslim League-led Nawaz Sharif government, to appointing renowned economist Atif Mian as an economic advisor and then backtracking due to his Ahmadiyya faith, to signing a contract with Tehrik-e-Labbaik goons after Asia Bibi’s exoneration, to not including Ahmadis in the National Minority Commission, the list is long, and shows the non-existent resolve of the government.
But, the Imran Khan administration is the loudest when it comes to raising voice against persecution of Muslim minorities anywhere in the world, especially in India. If PM Khan’s idea of giving a lesson to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on treatment of religious minorities involves making a U-turn on every tough decision and appeasing the clergy, then how is Naya Pakistan any different from the old one?
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.