As Pakistan Marks 70 Years Of Independence, Its Minorities Struggle For Space

Aug 14, 2017
Originally published on August 15, 2017 11:55 am

The children pile into the stadium in shiny clothes, clutching green-and-white Pakistani flags. Their parents light the area with cell phones to record the event as they scream, chant and cheer, watching soldiers close a gate that separates India from Pakistan.

In the evening ritual at the Wagah-Attari border, near Lahore and Amritsar, soldiers from both countries high-kick, shake their fists, then shake hands – and slam the gate shut.

It is deeply visceral for many Pakistanis: an acknowledgement of their border, of a plucky country they feel they have sacrificed so much to create.

Pakistan was imagined more than 70 years ago by a stern, British-educated, whiskey-drinking Shiite lawyer. Muhammad Ali Jinnah hoped for a nation as cosmopolitan as he was. He led the fight to carve the country out of British-ruled India. In a new, independent India, Muslims were fearful that they would be dominated by a Hindu majority.

But in the decades since, the sense of who is a citizen in the Muslim state hasn't been resolved. The question has come at a high price: Although Pakistan's constitution specifies the protection of minority rights, "the government limited freedom of religion," according to the State Department. The country's tiny minorities of Sikhs, Christians and Hindus are vulnerable to persecution. Certain laws, such as blasphemy laws, are often used to target them.

Within the Muslim community as well, the definition of who exactly is a Muslim has narrowed.

The seeds of Pakistan's intolerance were sown within the country's very ideology as a Muslim state, says Taimur Rehman, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

That intolerance was "inherent in the very way in which Pakistan was created and the very purpose which it was supposed to serve of being a Muslim state," he says. "By its very definition, it has already singled out a community in opposition to another one," he says, referring to Muslims and Hindus. "And it's very easy for that community to be to be narrowed further."

Over the decades, he argues, the narrowing has been exacerbated by the military, Pakistan's most powerful institution, which cultivated hard-line Islamists to wage a jihad in the disputed region of Kashmir, among other things.

This has given right-wing religious groups outsize influence. "Despite never having won an election," Rehman says, "they are nonetheless able to dictate the narrative in the country because of the support that they have from the military establishment."

Perhaps none have suffered more than members of a small Muslim sect, known as Ahmadis, whose beliefs clash with the dominant Sunni version of Islam. They played a key role in founding Pakistan. They are a community of over-achievers: An Ahmadi physicist, Abdus Salam, received one of only two Nobel prizes awarded to Pakistanis.

But the state declared Ahmadis as heretics via a constitutional amendment in the 1970s and restricted their rights further in the 1980s. They're not allowed to call themselves Muslims, and can't refer to their houses of worship as mosques. Over the years, militants have attacked their mosques and targeted them in killings.

In a leafy suburb near Lahore, the Khans live in a two-story home behind a high gate that's firmly bolted. Mrs. Khan stands on the balcony every morning, waiting for her husband to return from prayers at their local mosque. She's terrified that somebody will kill him.

"We are frightened," she says. "For the life." (Her first name isn't being published out of concern for the family's safety.)

Most of her family already fled overseas.

So far, Mrs. Khan insists on staying. She runs a clinic that dispenses free medicine to her poorer neighbors. "If I go, the people will suffer," she says.

She doesn't want to "just sit and eat" in exile. "This is not the meaning of life."

She's also worried about her nephew. Twice, somebody threw a note into his house warning him to convert to Sunni Islam — or die. He hides out here when he's afraid.

He repeatedly tried to flee Pakistan – but he says the U.K., Sweden and Canada all rejected applications.

The roots of intolerance run deeper than just how Pakistan defines itself as a Muslim state, says Anam Zakariya, an oral historian in Islamabad.

She traces it back to Pakistan's birth story – at the time of Partition, in 1947, when millions of Hindus and Sikhs fled to India and Muslims to Pakistan. Mobs raped and butchered each other — around a million people died.

But Zakariya says those events are pushed aside. Pakistan focuses on celebrating its creation – and emphasizes how Muslims were victims.

"Now if it's your biggest victory to date," Zakariya says, "you have to make sure that the bloodshed is portrayed to the younger generations as perpetrated by Indians — Hindus and Sikhs."

It's to drive home the point: "And that's why there was a need to create Pakistan."

There are challenges emerging to that narrative. In a sprawling park in the heart of noisy, smoggy Lahore, a museum will soon open that will look at Partition through the stories of the people who witnessed it. It's a collaboration between the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a nonprofit, and the government of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province.

"This is the first place in the entire country where you'll experience what the refugees in 1947 experienced," says Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker and head of the Citizens Archive.

Being exposed to stories from survivors of Partition will help create a more inclusive Pakistan, she believes, but it's a race against time – the people who lived through Partition are fading away.

And 70 years on, the very idea of what Pakistan is meant to be – an Islamic state, in opposition to Hindu-dominated India – feels hard to shake.

Near the museum construction site, the Abdul Aziz family huddles under a shelter as a sudden summer rain drenches the park. Their patriarch, Yousef, isn't sure of his age, but says he used to work in fields alongside Hindus – and so he predates Partition. When the Hindus left Pakistan, he said, Muslims became free.

"We are now in a country where we can say, 'There is no God but God and Muhammed is his messenger,'" he says, reciting the Muslim declaration of faith.

In Pakistan, he says, "There is no idolatry" – a reference to polytheist Hinduism.

His granddaughters Sania, 22, and Aya, 19, nod in agreement. He says he's proud of Pakistan, which he describes as a "fort of Islam" where it's safe for his grandchildren to grow up.

Sania says she's not interested in a museum. She's already heard her grandfather's stories of Partition, and she'll tell them one day to her own children.

Besides, she says, "I know history — the Islamic history of Pakistan."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.