Pakistan army chief Gen Syed Asim Munir’s recent interaction with a Christian delegation at General Headquarters [GHQ] Rawalpindi was obviously meant to soothe frayed nerves and allay fears of this community that witnessed the horrendous torching of more than 20 churches and several houses of their brethren by frenzied mobs over allegations of blasphemy.
The scale of destruction wrecked by arsonists in Faisalabad district’s Jaranwala area was humongous and did merit state intervention at the highest level. But when an army chief and not a politician, bureaucrat or religious scholar met a civilian delegation led by a religious head to discuss inter-faith amity it only reaffirmed the harsh reality that Pakistan is not a country with an army, but an army with a country.
As numero uno in Pakistan’s list of all-powerfuls, Gen Munir giving audience to the delegation led by the Moderator and President Bishops [Church of Pakistan and Bishop of Raiwind] aptly conveyed a message that the highest echelon of authority in the country had taken note of the Jaranwala arson.
Being a devout Muslim, an Islamic scholar and ‘Hafiz-e-Quran’ [one who has memorised the entire Quran], who could be better than Gen Munir to clarify any erroneous or misplaced notions about Islam that the delegation members or the Christian community may have been harbouring.
As per Pakistan army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR], And Gen Munir informed the delegation members that “Islam is a religion of peace and there is no space for intolerance and extremism in Islam and society,” making it clear that the Jaranwala incident violated fundamental tenets of Islam. By adding that “No one can be allowed to take law in his own hands in a civilised society,” the army chief indicated that the culprits would definitely be taken to task.
In its press release, Pakistan army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] has mentioned that “During the meeting matters of mutual interest, religious and inter-faith harmony were discussed. COAS lauded the contributions of Pakistani Christian Community in national development, including promotion of quality education, healthcare and philanthropic services and outstanding role played by them for the defence of the motherland.”
The press release goes on to state that the “Christian Community members acknowledged Pakistan Army’s efforts in combating terrorism and providing secure environment to the minorities in the country.” That members of the Christian community “appreciated Army Chief’s gesture as an inspiration for Pakistani minorities to take greater and more active part in nation building and in restoring their faith in a cohesive and tolerant society,” is heartening.
From the ISPR press release it appears that this engagement has been extremely beneficial in restoring faith of Pakistan’s minority Christian community, and hence Gen Munir definitely deserves accolades for his commendable initiative. Unfortunately, his outreach also raises some disconcerting questions regarding the state’s response to rampant persecution of minority communities in Pakistan.
No one would begrudge the Pakistan army chief’s decision of walking the extra mile to comfort a traumatised minority community. However, this development raises a question- since there are several other minority communities in Pakistan like the Ahmadis, Shias, Hindus and Sikhs who are also facing persecution orchestrated by fundamentalist forces, what’s holding back Gen Munir from holding similar meetings with them too?
The contribution of the Ahmadiyya community in nation building and defence of Pakistan has been remarkable and despite institutionalised persecution, its members have reconciled to this gross injustice and are living peacefully. Yet unprovoked murderous assaults on its community members are commonplace in Pakistan. Not only this, Ahmadiyya places of worship are continuously attacked, damaged and desecrated in broad daylight with brazen impunity as perpetrators of such hate crimes are seldom punished.
What’s even more alarming is that law enforcing agencies are openly participating in damaging Ahmadiyya worship places. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan [HRCP] has documented at least 34 attacks on Ahmadiyya religious sites in this year alone, and The Friday Times has reported five incidents of police destroying minarets of Ahmadiyya prayer halls in just a single week. Al Jazeera has quoted a local saying that at least 74 Ahmadi graves were vandalised last month!
These alarming statistics provide an insight into the wretched condition of Ahmadis in Pakistan, but yet Gen Munir doesn’t consider it necessary to meet and reassure the beleaguered Ahmadiyya community!
The condition of Pakistan’s minority Hindu community is no better. Abduction, forcible conversion and marriage of Hindu girls [often minors] has become Pakistan’s new normal. In a news report carried by Dawn [‘5,000 Hindus migrating to India every year, NA told’, May, 13, 2014], RameshKumar Vankwani, a Hindu member of the National assembly of Pakistan revealed that about 5,000 Hindus migrate annually from Pakistan to India due to fear of forced conversions.
Nearly 90 percent of the Hindus in Pakistan reside in Sindh province and in November 2016, a bill declaring forced conversion a punishable offence was passed by the Sindh Provincial Assembly. However, the Governor succumbed to objections from religious parties and pressure from fundamentalists and refused to ratify the bill into a law.
Desecration and destruction of Hindu temples and religious sites also continues unabated. Since January 2020, at least 10 Hindu temples and shrines in Pakistan have been either destroyed or vandalised by mobs. Many incidents of desecration go unreported due to fear of retribution and refusal of the police to allow registration of complaints.
With a large section of Pakistan police harbouring communal hatred towards Hindus, this minority community has become an easy target for dacoits and criminals. In its tweet of July 16, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan [HRPC] revealed that about 30 members of the Hindu community were taken hostage by “organised criminal gangs” in the Kashmore and Ghotki districts of Sindh. Even a green horn will tell you that two and a half dozen people can’t be abducted without active police connivance.
Unfortunately, the miserable plight of the minority Hindu community living in Pakistan doesn’t seem to stir Gen Munir’s conscience!
Pakistan’s largest minority community of Shia Muslims is also a hapless victim of faith-driven persecution and it is estimated that about 4,800 Shias lost their lives in sectarian violence between 2001 and 2018. The minority Sikh community too is extremely vulnerable to the abduction and forcible marriage of their womenfolk, and the men are often subjected to murderous attacks, but it seems that the Pakistan army chief apparently has no time for the Shias or Sikhs.
Returning to the question of why Gen Munir has been so miserly in reaching out to Pakistan’s victimised religious minorities, there are two possibilities. One, due lack of meaningful steps taken by the powers that be for ending persecution of minority communities on the basis of religion, has created a major trust deficit between the establishment and these minority communities.
Convinced that such meetings are merely photo ops choreographed by ISPR, these marginalised minority communities avoid the same as it exploits and also mocks their poor plight. However, the counter to this assumption is that if GHQ seriously wants to hold such meetings, there’s no way that the vulnerable communities can refuse to oblige. So, this argument is not convincing.
The second supposition is that Gen Munir is intentionally avoiding meeting delegations from other persecuted minority communities since doing so is fraught with the danger of antagonising the powerful radical lobby and fringe elements.
Both the political class as well as the army in Pakistan has been indiscriminately using religion as an expedient tool for mobilising the masses which has allowed fundamentalist ideology to take root and spawned a host of far-right Islamic extremist political and religious parties.
Though the Frankensteins thus created are completely unreasonable and absolutely intolerant, they have a huge following and as such their power cannot be underestimated. So, it goes without saying that any meeting of Gen Munir with members of the Ahmadiyya community will outrightly be deemed a sacrilegious act by these radicals.
Similarly, in Pakistan Hinduism is portrayed as an existential threat to Islam and hence, any attempt to apply a ‘healing touch’ to this community of ‘Kafirs’ [non-believers] is akin to sleeping with the enemy. Any attempts at reconciliation with the Shia community would be tantamount to betraying the majority community and hence not acceptable to the religious bigots who hold sway over the masses in Pakistan.
The communally instigated Jaranwala incident infuriated the West and occurred at a time when resumption of financial aid by the International Monetary Fund [IMF] had just recommenced after a prolonged hiatus. Needless to say, Pakistan could ill-afford bad blood with Western powers that fund and control IMF at this critical stage and hence it’s quite likely that Gen Munir’s decision of reaching out to the Christian community was an exercise in maintaining cordial international relations.
This also explains why Gen Munir’s minority community outreach terminated with just a single meeting. Interacting with the Christian community delegation was an inescapable requirement to pacify the West. Conversely, while there’s nothing much to gain by interacting with delegations of other minority communities, there’s definitely a lot to lose-probably that’s why the wily Gen Munir has wisely avoided any interaction with other minority community members.