The National Day of Religious Minorities in Pakistan on August 11 every year since 2009 reminds us of the speech by the father of the nation in 1947. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah had enunciated his thoughts on freedom of religion in the Pakistan that was about to emerge on the map of the world. He had assured that in the new country all citizens – irrespective of religion, caste, or creed – would be free to go to their places of worship; a state in which religion would be an entirely personal matter. The evolution of the state that had come into being with so much promise has however been disappointing. While on paper religious minorities in Pakistan have full rights as equal citizens, they face many problems when claiming those rights.
The constitution of Pakistan gives minorities an assurance that they would enjoy all facilities and privileges that all the citizens of Pakistan are entitled to. Whether by design or default, however, the state in the widest sense appears to have been either complicit or collusive in the persecution of religious minorities. It is now virtually impossible to conclude otherwise as the evidence mounts of successive failures to protect the rights, property and religious adherences of minority faiths. Their places of worship have been attacked time and again and there is always a threat of forced conversion, especially of girls. Most minority groups live a vulnerable life and forced conversions continue to affect mostly those who belong to a lower socio-economic status. In this context, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s proposal to constitute a ‘parliamentary oversight committee’ on issues related to minorities, especially that of forced conversions, is a timely intervention. The situation has been alarming enough and it is time those in the political arena took notice of it seriously. In his speech on August 11, former prime minister Imran Khan too spoke about the issue and categorically said that his party stands opposed to forced conversion of minority faith girls.
Successive governments in Pakistan have been unable to solve the various challenges faced by minority communities. State inaction encourages perpetrators to use force and intimidation to cover up crimes and discrimination against minorities. Any abuse of minority rights must be addressed, and adequate legislation must be in place and enforced. There is a need for awareness raising that the marginalized status of minorities in the country is not acceptable at any levels. After every act of violence, there is the ritualized hand-wringing and protestations to the effect that all faiths are citizens of Pakistan. Yet the reality is that time and time again the forces of law-and-order fail to deploy in defence or protection of religious minorities and the words uttered by those who represent the state prove to be hollow and valueless. Members of minority faiths find it a struggle to feel safe and secure in the Pakistan of today, a cynical traducing of Jinnah’s vision.