What does the future hold for minorities in Naya Pakistan? By Nasir Saeed


The dust is settling from Pakistan's parliamentary elections and the victory of Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) and now Pakistanis - and indeed the world - are watching to see if he can deliver on the promises of reform that secured his victory.
He rode high on a tide of popular opinion but the question for me as a Pakistani is whether he can deliver change for the country's longsuffering minorities.
The shift from the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) is a step in the right direction as their years in power have been bitter for the country's Christians. Who can forget the riots in Gojra in 2009 that resulted in the horrific murder of eight Christians burnt to death or the attack on Joseph Colony in 2013 after Sawan Masih, a Christian man, was accused of blasphemy despite almost no evidence. Instead of going after the mob who burnt houses to the ground in the rampage, the courts sentenced Masih to death for blasphemy and he remains in prison.
What about Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010 - to great international outcry? Or the murders of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti after they spoke in support of her release? Or the brutal murders of Shama and Shahzad Masih, burnt to death in a brick kiln in Kasur? Despite one horrific crime after another, those in power did little to stem the tide of violence against Christians. Indeed, with such a poor track record on minority issues, there are few Christians in Pakistan sad to see the PML-N go.
However, minorities are not ready to rejoice the arrival of Khan's PTI. Read through his election agendas and victory speech and you will notice something is missing - a clear policy or programme for religious minorities. This has myself and Pakistan's minorities not only disappointed but worried about their future in the country. Will it just be more of the same?
With no specific minority policy spelled out by Khan, we have to resort to reading between the lines. He has spoken of his desire to model the Medina state of the 7th century, when the Prophet Muhammad's teachings inspired a charter to bring peace between the different factions and provide inclusion for a Jewish minority so long as they were prepared to accept second-class status to Muslims.
On another note, Khan has said: "I wanted Pakistan to become the country that my leader Quaid I Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah had dreamed of."
Jinnah achieved Pakistan through a democratic struggle and believed in equality for all citizens - that a man "no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights."
But without any concrete minority agenda, nor any consultation with minority leaders, confusion and worry remains and for now, we are left asking: what will be the future of non-Muslims in the Naya (new) Pakistan? Will he follow the Medina state model, a western welfare system, or make the country Quaid's Pakistan, where religion or caste or creed has nothing to do with the business of the State, but every citizen has equal rights?
I am sure Khan must have some plans in mind on this important issue but it is important that he start talking with Pakistan's minorities to clear all the confusion and send them a clear sign that he is friend, not foe. At the moment, we are not entirely sure.
His election comes at a critical time for minorities. Renowned human rights activist and writer I. A. Rehman has already said that Pakistan "is becoming more and more intolerant of minority rights" and I would agree with him. Unfortunately, after 70 years minorities are still not considered equal citizens of Pakistan. Quaid I Azam built Pakistan off the back of a democratic struggle in which many minorities supported him. Even the inclusion of Punjab was only made possible by the Christians who stood side by side with Muslims in support.
But this fact and Jinnah's democratic dream has been ignored by the establishment and extremists who have taken Pakistan down a path of radicalism and intolerance that has only fostered deadly divisions in society. While the radicals use violence and aggression to mete out mob justice and get their way in the chambers of power, minorities across the country live in fear of assaults, attacks and even worse, a false accusation under the country's unjust blasphemy laws that can trigger mob violence, a death sentence and years in prison.
Khan has promised major reforms, particularly in the areas of welfare and governance, and there are many minorities who have been hoping that his coming to power will indeed usher in a new, more equal, cleaner and fairer Pakistan for all. I, however, fear that it is expecting too much of Khan to think that he will bring in any significant changes for the country's minorities. Instead, I fear that the equal rights that could elevate the country's minorities from their current status as demonized second-class citizens is but a very distant dream.
So far, the only corner of Parliament that has been prepared to stick its neck out to any meaningful extent for minority rights has been the Pakistan People's Party. This year was the first time that at least three candidates from the Hindu minority won seats in a general election - all three were from the PPP. And in March this year, two minority senators from the PPP were elected, Anwar Lal Din, a Christian from Karachi, and Krishna Kohli, the first Hindu Dalit woman. The party also has a good track record of speaking out on minority issues, including forced conversion, changes to the blasphemy law, and changes to the syllabus. I personally see the PPP as the best choice for the minorities of Pakistan and other parties should follow their approach.
As they only managed third place in the election, we must for now work with what we have and wait to see what, if anything, Khan does about the minority situation in Pakistan. And we must continue to advocate for change. For one thing, the National Commission of Human Rights should be greatly strengthened, and the long-awaited national commission for minority rights ordered by the Supreme Court years ago should actually be set up. These important measures are not out of reach and would, I believe, make meaningful change possible. But as ever, those in power need to prove their commitment to a better Pakistan by turning promises into reality. There are always new opportunities when new parties come to power. Pakistan's minorities will be watching and praying. Khan, please, let their prayers not be in vain.

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