Book Review: State of Minorities in India and Pakistan

REVIEWS: The quest for peace
Reviewed by Habib R. Sulemani: Dawn, October 21, 2007

Violence, Memories and Peace-building: A citizen report on minorities in India and Pakistan: Compiled and edited by Ahmad Salim, Nosheen D’souza and Leonard D’souza South Asian Research & Resource Centre (SARRC), Islamabad; 264pp.

Until recently, non-Muslim Pakistanis, known as religious minorities, were somewhat totally out of the national mainstream. Politically they had a separate electoral system and from textbooks to everyday-life, they would ‘softly’ complain about discriminations being served to them.

But after 9/11, the president accelerated his social reforms of ‘enlightened moderation’ due to emerging global pressure. Due to the reforms many religious minorities are gradually gaining confidence and they no longer consider themselves condemned second-class citizens of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. They are now feeling the zest to play an active social rule in the Muslim-dominated country in a pluralistic way.

Violence, Memories and Peace-building: A citizen report on minorities in India and Pakistan is an effort to reinstate that a religious minority in India is the majority in Pakistan and vice versa — and religious minorities have the same difficulties on either side of the boarder and they must be addressed seriously.

The report is also an effort to highlight the positive social role of the minorities during the violent partition when almost one million people were killed on the basis of their faith. During that violent time many Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were thirsty for each others’ blood — yet there were people in all communities who had faith in humanity at large and they saved the lives of many from other religious groups. They also helped many migrants reach their destinations and some even sacrificed their own lives and properties for the cause.

The report is divided into ten major sections along with three supplementary parts and an introduction. The first section deals with the colonial face of India and states that despite the political strife and mutual friction, the ancient Indian state was a centre of different religions and cultures, which coexisted for centuries. But the British Raj divided the people into ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ groups to keep itself in power. This section also traces the history of Christians, Parsis and the Theosophical Society in South Asia and highlights their philanthropic services.

The second section is about minorities in Pakistan after the partition. According to which the founding party, the Pakistan Muslim League, had been divided into two groups — Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan led those who were insisting on observing Islamic principles in the new country while Finance Minister Ghulam Mohammad led the secular group. The report explains how an Urdu newspaper (Nawa-i-Waqat) started a campaign against the liberal ideas of the founding father, Quaid-i-Azam, who was championing the rights of religious minorities in the new country.

This section also traces the history of early militancy in the country with the emergence of Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani and Maulana Zafar Ali Khan’s organisation Sarfaroshaan-i-Islam — aimed to ‘conquer East Punjab and unfurl Pakistan’s flag on Delhi’s Red Fort.’

Memories of partition, violence, trauma, hope and harmony are the subjects of the next two sections. The compilers have gathered stories of love, generosity, hope and peace from people of different faiths from across the border. There are so many stories and eyewitness accounts of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis, which make the reader believe that humanity has no religion, cast or creed. These real-life stories and events give one hope for the emergence of a peaceful South Asian region.

Kalyan Singh’s story is an example of the centuries-old traditional Hindu-Muslim tolerance in the region. During the 1969 riots in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Hindu gangs raided an area of the city where 35 Muslim houses were scattered among 120 Hindu houses in the neighbourhoods. When asked to identify the Muslim houses, the Hindus of the area refused and the gangs resorted to setting all the houses in the neighbourhood on fire out of frustration. When a resident of the area, Mr Singh, was later asked: ‘Why did you let your property worth two lakhs be reduced to ashes?’ he answered: ‘They [Muslims] are like our kith and kin, and we address them as uncles and cousins. If we had allowed their places to be burnt down — with what face would we have gone to our Maker?’

Political and constitutional activism among minorities in Pakistan and India has been discussed in sections six and seven. Contributions of minorities to both countries are the topic of the next two sections and the tenth section is about the ‘hateful images’ portrayed in school curriculums, which alleges that successive governments in Pakistan have used textbooks for propagating their ‘biased outlook’ towards history, politics, society and religion. The outcome is an intolerant and prejudiced generation which is the reason for the nation’s backwardness.

Finally, the researchers have provided peace-building measures and recommendations for both Pakistan and India. References and a selected bibliography are also available. Despite some narrative, editing and compilation flaws this is a unique report with stunning pictures, memories, historical events and human sentiments. It is neither a typical research paper, nor a historical account written in the traditional way — rather it is a report of the common people, by the people and for the people. It looks at history from the public’s vantage point.

The bitterness, rivalry and enmity of decades in the subcontinent will not change over night but such reports and other peace-building measures at every level would increase the pace of reconciliation. The report is a must-read for all those who are interested in the region’s history and politics. It is also useful reference material for researchers, scholars and media personnel.

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