As India slides into what is widely seen as an anti-minority environment, many people, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have cited Pakistan’s poor record of protecting religious minorities as a defence, as if it somehow justifies exclusionary policies against India’s minorities.
Critics of the Modi government, on the other hand, have questioned the very notion that Pakistan may have driven out large numbers of Hindus and Sikhs to dilute the proportion of minorities in its population.
Both are wrong.
‘Muslims should go to Pakistan’ is not better than ‘Hindus have no place in Pakistan’, and is unlikely to contribute to a better world.
A slippery slope
Unmitigated repression in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority state before it was made into two union territories, legitimately worries minority rights activists around the world. Federations do not suddenly deprive a constituting state of its statehood nor do democracies practice unlimited suspension of civil rights or detention of politicians.
When such a roll-back of democracy and federal rights takes place in a region where the national minority is the majority, it naturally raises questions about treatment of the minority.
So, the world is sitting up to notice. Most recently, 626 of 751 members of the European Union (EU) have moved six resolutions against India’s actions in Kashmir and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
India’s new citizenship law also cannot be justified by the persecution of minorities in Pakistan. If the purpose of the law is to enable those persecuted for their religion in India’s neighbouring countries to become Indian citizens, a law enabling citizenship for all religiously persecuted refugees would have sufficed.
Listing religions whose followers would get protection, and excluding Muslims from that list clearly has a communal purpose.
Just because India is on a slippery slope in its treatment of minorities, with widely reported attacks on Muslims and Christians and legal manoeuvres to link citizenship with religion, there is also no reason to whitewash Pakistan’s poor record of protecting religious minorities.
No purity in the ‘pure’
If anything, Pakistan’s track record should serve as a cautionary tale for Indians who see current developments as anything less than the beginning of a process that just cannot end well.
As the author of a book on the history of Pakistan’s religious minorities, let me state clearly that the real culprit in the widespread persecution of religious minorities in the case of Pakistan was the desire of some to create a purer Islamic state. Since purity is always relative, every step towards purification ends up demanding another.
The goal should be a diverse and secular India, albeit with a Hindu majority, and diverse and secular Pakistan and Bangladesh, with Muslim majorities, living side by side on a subcontinent its peoples have shared for centuries.
The effect of Partition
Now, a word about recent suggestions that mistreatment of religious minorities, particularly the decline of minorities in Pakistan’s population after Partition, are somehow wrong or exaggerated.
One article recently claimed that “there is no authentic and reliable official data on the religious composition of Pakistan’s population in 1947” before proceeding to question the data, which comes from my book Purifying the Land of the Pure.
The fact remains that in the last census preceding the creation of Pakistan in 1947 –
the 1941 census – non-Muslims comprised 20.5 per cent of the population in the geographical area that became West Pakistan. There were also 32.2 per cent non-Muslims in the districts that became East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Swapping or mass transfers of population were not envisaged in the partition scheme, and no mass movement of population occurred before 1947.
So, when the partition plan was announced in June 1947, non-Muslims were expected to constitute 27.3 per cent of the population of areas that were to become Pakistan.
In his 1948 academic essay ‘The Partition of India and the Prospects of Pakistan’, Australian geographer O.H.K. Spate used district-wise census data, coupled with growth estimates, to compute the numbers of Muslims and non-Muslims for each of the new dominions, India and Pakistan.
The demographics of West Pakistan changed completely within a few months of Partition. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s excellently researched book The Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned, and Cleansed explains how riots and organised attacks resulted in Hindus and Sikhs leaving Pakistan’s portion of divided Punjab, followed by mass exodus and expulsion of Muslims from the Indian part.
In his 1949 article titled ‘India and Pakistan: The Demography of Partition’, American sociologist and demographer Kingsley Davis said: “In 1941 there were 94.5 million Muslims and 270.2 million Hindus in the subcontinent. The Muslims comprised 24.3 percent of the total population [of undivided India], and the Hindus 69.5 percent. No other religious group represented so much as 3.0 percent of the population. Since these proportions change very slowly, they effectively describe the situation existing on the eve of partition.”
Davis explained further that 76 Muslim majority districts were situated in two clusters, one in the northwest and one in the northeast, and it was the existence of these clusters embracing some 56 million Muslims that “made the establishment of Pakistan possible.”
But a major corollary of Partition was that “40 percent of all Muslims (38 million) lived outside of the two clusters of Muslim-dominated districts and these districts contained 20.2 million non-Muslims, representing more than one-fourth of their total population. These two facts indicate the great demographic obstacle to the establishment of Pakistan: clearly partition would create two minority problems where before there had been only one, notwithstanding the fact that in each case the minority would have a contiguous nation to speak for it”.
Davis estimated that some six million Muslims entered [West and East] Pakistan and about five million non-Muslims left it. “Approximately one million persons died in the process, from starvation, exhaustion, disease or violence,” he writes.
“While the mass migrations did not bring all of the Muslims into Pakistan nor take all of the non-Muslims out, they did alter the religious composition of the two countries,” Davis points out. “The estimated percentage of Muslim inhabitants in Pakistan territory rose from 77 in 1941 to 83 in 1949.” The new demographic reality was reflected in Pakistan’s 1951 census.
Not an example to follow
The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 reduced Pakistan’s non-Muslim population significantly but between 1947 and 1951, West Pakistan had already lost the bulk of its Hindus and Sikhs and accepted large numbers of Muslim migrants primarily from Indian Punjab. Non-Muslims went from being 20.5 per cent of the population of West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan) to around 3.5 per cent.
But extremists were not content with the reduction in Pakistan’s non-Muslim population. The Muslimisation of Pakistan was followed by Islamisation in stages. Once the number of Hindus and Sikhs had dwindled, hardliners turned on Ahmadis who consider themselves Muslims and had supported Partition actively. Later, it was the turn of Shia Muslims, whom extremist Sunnis want to exclude from the fold of Islam.
So, the case of Pakistan can’t be cited by India’s extremists to justify their desire to reduce the presence and freedoms of minorities. Nor should others try and deny the extent of the problem in Pakistan to advance the case for a pluralist India.
The depletion of Pakistan’s minorities post-Partition led to subsequent demands for Islamisation that have not brought peace and progress to Pakistan to this day. For its social peace and economic prosperity, India must not go down that path.
Farahnaz Ispahani is a Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. She is a former Member of the Pakistan Parliament and author of Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities. Views are personal.