Will Hindus be denied a temple in Islamabad?

All its protestations will be seen as hypocritical if non-Muslims in Pakistan appear to be discriminated against, writes Farhatullah Babar

Will Hindus be denied a temple in Islamabad?
The issue of the construction of the first Hindu temple in Islamabad was raised during the debate in the National Assembly on Wednesday.

MNA Abdul Akbar Chitrali of the Jamaat-e-Islami said that there was no room for a Hindu temple to be built in an Islamic country with public funds. Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri meekly responded that the question whether the temple could be built with public funds had been referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology for an opinion.

Earlier, the Islamabad High Court disposed of three identical petitions filed against the construction of the temple after the government took the plea that the matter had been referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology. The court, however, also overruled legal objections to the allotment of land for the temple and cremation site. The land allotment is right but the construction has to be regulated by the building regulator, it said. The regulator in this case is the Capital Development Authority (CDA).

Hindu citizens have long been demanding construction of a temple in Islamabad. In 2017, four kanals were allotted to them in Sector H-9/2 of the federal capital during the government of Nawaz Sharif. The land was also handed over to the local Hindu community leadership the next year. Although majority of Hindus, constituting 1.6 percent of the 220 million population, live in Thar and other districts in Sindh, there are over 3,000 Hindus living in the federal capital.

On June 27, a delegation of local Hindus along with the religious affairs minister called on Prime Minister Imran Khan and asked for funds for the construction of the temple. The prime minister announced a grant of Rs100 million for the purpose and the community members began constructing the boundary wall with their own resources in anticipation of the release of the promised grant.

Soon after the prime minister announced the grant, religious parties declared their opposition to it. The Jamia Ashrafia issued a fatwa opposing spending of tax-payers money to build houses of worship of minority communities. After this, pictures went viral on social media of a young man demolishing the under construction boundary wall which was then stopped. No action was taken against the individual who had taken the law into his own hands. There was no word from the prime minister, except an announcement that the matter had been referred to the council which will meet in September to give its opinion.

The construction of the temple with public funds is not final, a government official informed the Islamabad High Court during the hearing. “The government has asked for consultation on the issue of whether it can be constructed or not, and whether public funds can be used to do so.”

The Jamia Ashrafia fatwa of July 1 said that the government can use its funds for upkeep and repair of places of worship for minority communities that already exist, but it cannot use public funds to build new places of worship for anyone other than Muslims. Mufti Ziauddin of Lahore chapter of Jamia Ashrafia said that it is Islamic to retain and maintain the already existing places of worship of the minorities but allowing them to build new places of worship or to rebuild an abandoned place of worship in an Islamic state is un-Islamic, as it is equivalent to aiding in a bad deed. This, he said, is not permissible.

The opinion of the Council of Islamic Ideology headed by a learned Islamic scholar should be welcomed, even though there are legal and constitutional questions about the status of the council itself. The council was required to submit a final report to the parliament which it did in 2007. What is the status of the council after this final report is not clear. In one of its own annual reports, the council admitted that after submission of the final report, it is not required to continue submitting annual reports to the parliament but is doing so ‘in the interest of continuity.’

While the council formulates its opinion on the issue, it should also take the opportunity to address the issues around the legality of its own continued existence. Doing so will only lend greater weight to the opinions of the council itself.

Secondly, interpretation of Islamic tenets should not be left to a few clerics. The council should consider holding a broad based public debate on the issue to which all shades of opinion be invited.

No country can live in isolation. Pakistan has been condemning violence against Muslims in India and in particular the atrocities in Kashmir. It has been condemning atrocities against Palestinian Muslims by Israel. All its protestations will be seen as hypocritical if non-Muslims in Pakistan were seen to be discriminated against. Pakistan’s silence about reports of treatment of Muslims in Uyghur province has done no service to its credibility. It is unrealistic to expect the world to heed our protestations against others if the country does not defend and protect its own minorities.

Finally, the argument that a Hindu temple cannot be built with taxes collected from Muslims is both hollow and dangerous. If this rationale is accepted, who can stop Hindus from demanding an account of the taxes collected from them and how much of it was spent on the construction of their places of worship. The ultimate consequences of this line of reasoning can only be disastrous.

The writer is a former senator