Growing Up In A Pakistan Where We Did Not Know Religious Vigilantism

"Our school, amongst Karachi's finest girls' institutions in Sindh, offered a course in Ethics, which was available to non-Muslims"

Growing Up In A Pakistan Where We Did Not Know Religious Vigilantism

"Maddhu bagged the top honours in Islamiat!" was the first proclamation at our morning assembly. Maddhu, a Hindu, was our senior. She secured the highest percentage in the 10th-grade Karachi Board matriculation exams. Our school, amongst Karachi's finest girls' institutions in Sindh, offered a course in Ethics, which was available to non-Muslims and to any of those willing to forgo Islamic Studies.

The Islamiat course, consisting of Hadith and Quran was not simple or consistent with other religions. It was, therefore, not expected from non-Muslim students to study the course. Yet, against all odds, Maddhu stepped forth of her own volition and marked her presence in the subject, securing the highest marks. Her feat garnered applause and would stand as an exemplar for Muslim students in the ensuing years.

Mrs D'Souza and Shyrel, our senior and junior sickroom nurses, both of the Christian faith, commanded as much, if not more, respect from both the staff and students. There was no room for discrimination here.

Joyce, our physical education teacher, a zealous player of throwball, basketball, and, occasionally, cricket and badminton, all the while steadfastly leading our aerobics sessions, was a source of great pride.

When Computer Science as a subject was introduced in Karachi, our school stood as a pioneer, introducing Trevor and another Christian teacher whose name presently eludes me, to guide us in establishing a computer lab.

Lakshmi Bai, a Hindu lady, somewhat past her prime, remained a constant presence in the corridors and restrooms, assiduously sweeping the floors with phenyl, leaving in her wake a bracing scent, her cotton sari rustling with every graceful movement.

Hindus, Christians, Ismailis, Shias, Sunnis—all coexisted harmoniously. There existed, in fact, a Christian girl in my Fine Arts department at college who took our elective English class and was rightfully admired for her accomplishments.

Abu's annual tradition of delivering a Christmas cake to Francis Lobo, the head of IFRC Sindh, and receiving an invitation to their Christmas Eve dinner and party became a comforting routine.

We shared our lunches at college, relished parshad, attended majlis gatherings, lent our ears to the sermons by His Highness the Aga Khan, celebrated Nowruz alongside the Parsi community and held in high regard their aatish kada and Dakhma.

But then, the advent of hardline beliefs disrupted the tranquil equilibrium. The state's treatment of minorities took a turn for the worse.

I can vividly recall a memory from when I was a mere 7-year-old, shopping with Ami during Ramazan after school. Every restaurant on Tariq Road had shuttered its doors. My thirst had reduced me to tears. We entered a grocery store to purchase some packaged juice. The storekeeper told my mother that I had to get inside the shop away from policing to drink it, as it was a law in General Zia-ul-Haq's regime against non-fasting individuals to pay a fine or some other penalty. One can't imagine how a 7-year-old was supposed to observe the law! 

Under Zia-ul-Haq's regime, it was forbidden for non-fasting individuals, even a 7-year-old, to consume food openly. Stringent laws, coupled with increasingly fanatical consequences, began to overshadow secular sensibilities.

Our very identities became a contentious issue, sowing seeds of isolation and separation among communities. Racial, ethnic, religious, sectarian and other bigotries and discrimination emerged as the bane of our peaceful coexistence.

Khawaja Nazimuddin, Pakistan's second Prime Minister, once said: "I do not agree that religion is a private affair of the individual nor do I agree that in an Islamic state every citizen has identical rights, no matter what his caste, creed, or faith." Revisiting history is painful when you read unprecedented remarks by the founders in the context of divides.

The law and its application within The Islamic Republic of Pakistan remain equally disheartening. The Pakistan Blasphemy Law originates from Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which stipulates that whoever “defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to a fine.” This law is couched in vague terms, thereby violating the principles of legality, and is often wielded to level false accusations against religious minorities. Penalties for these offences range from fines to long terms of imprisonment, and in the case of defamation of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), a mandatory death sentence – all under the jurisdiction of courts presided over by Muslim judges.

Among those victimised, for their outspoken opposition to blasphemy laws or their exoneration of the accused, were Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab (Pakistan's largest province), Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities, and High Court justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti in his chambers. Anyone daring to oppose blasphemy laws and their proceedings has found themselves targeted for public lynchings or street vigilantism in Pakistan.

This situation prompts a reflection on the religious leaders, the self-proclaimed clergy, and indeed, all Pakistani Muslims and their convictions. How can we justify the unwarranted aggression, the propagation of hate literature, and the rise of extremism perpetrated by self-righteous individuals who – devoid of knowledge, information, and involvement of legal institutions – arbitrarily determine who is worthy of life and who is not?

The Jaranwala incident serves as a stark contrast with the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) with the Monks of Mount Sinai: " Christian resident among the Muslims should be treated with contempt on account of his creed.” The Prophet (PBUH) declared that any Muslim violating any clause of the charter should be regarded as a transgressor of Allah’s commandments, a violator of His testament, and neglectful of His faith.

We, as followers of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), ought to hang our heads in shame, for we seem to have forgotten this sacred covenant, choosing instead to appease our hidden prejudices by taking the lives of the innocent.

My escape to Sri Lanka, just after the mob lynching of Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, left a deep impression. The Singhalese people, upon learning of my Pakistani origin, greeted me with "Pakistan Zindabad" slogans wherever I roamed in Sri Lanka. There, I felt safer, wandering alone as a Muslim, than I had ever felt in my own homeland, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. They bore no grudges. Yet, my sensitive heart could not shake off the guilt of belonging to a nation whose barbaric and vengeful actions had stained my sleeves with blood. 

We label ourselves Muslims, but embarrassingly, we are a people from whose tongues and hands others are not safe, and let us remember: the believer is the one who is to be trusted with the lives and wealth of the people. Hark!