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Can Islamabad change its spots?


A slew of recent decisions by Pakistan involving minorities and non-state actors wedded to terror have taken the world by surprise. In a clear break with the past, Islamabad has taken a number of steps aimed at addressing several long-standing issues concerning its Hindu citizens. Simultaneously, Islamabad has moved against Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed.

Last month, Pakistan placed Saeed under detention, without assigning reasons, and shut down the operations of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and its charitable wing, the Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation. The Army’s public relations wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations, explained the arrest saying the action was “in the national interest” to bring Pakistan into compliance with United Nations Resolution 1267. The government, however, has maintained complete silence on the issue.

Even more surprising have been moves by Nawaz Sharif, the beleaguered prime minister of Pakistan, aimed at placating the persecuted Hindu community whose numbers have dropped from 24 per cent at the time of Partition, to about 1.5 per cent, thanks to forced conversions and large-scale migration (mainly to India) to escape torture and atrocities at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists and anti-social elements, who generally enjoy the protection of the establishment.

While terming hate-mongering “unlawful” and pledging welfare of minorities and reaffirming his belief in equal citizenship for all, the Pakistani premier warned hardliners against preaching animosity after inaugurating a water filtration plant at Katas Raj, an ancient Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva and Pandavas of the legendary Mahabharat.

Katas finds mention in Hindu mythology. After Sati jumped into fire at her father’s yagna following an insult to her husband, Shiva cried and his tears fell at Pushkar (in Rajasthan) and at Katas, now in the heart of Pakistan Punjab. Prior to Partition, it was an important Hindu pilgrimage centre. Every Shivratri, lakhs of Hindus used to assemble there for rituals and prayers.

Around the sacred water reservoir, there are stone structures where Pandavas are said to have stayed during their Vanvas period. In the same complex lies the palace ruins of the legendary Hari Singh Nalwa, one of the top generals of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab. Seventy years of plunder by Islamic zealots and neglect on the part of the establishment have reduced the once famed historical and holy site to a complete wasteland. It was here that Sharif had offered protection to the Hindus and promised them justice.

Sharif’s conciliatory gesture at Katas is not an isolated incident. In September, the Pakistan government got the Hindu Marriage Bill passed. Earlier on March 8, the Pakistan Parliament passed a resolution declaring Diwali and Holi as public holidays. In November 2015, Sharif promised Hindus that he would support them even if their oppressors were Muslims at a Diwali function. All this is unprecedented, for minorities count for nothing in the social and political life of Pakistan and have no clout whatsoever in the establishment.

The list of such gestures on the part of Sharif is long. In February 2016, his government passed the women’s protection Act against domestic, psychological and sexual violence. Sharif showed rare courage when his government went ahead to execute Governor Salman Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, as per court orders. In December 2016, the Pakistani prime minister had renamed a centre at a top university after Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, who came from the persecuted Ahmadiyya community.

The Punjab government (Punjab has 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population) has meanwhile passed a legislation removing a lacuna in the law that helped those convicted of honour killing to go scot-free in case families of victims pardoned them.

Is Pakistan changing for real? Or is this all part of an image makeover exercise for global consumption? Remember, all these “changes” are taking place in Pakistan at a time when its stock in the world is at its lowest ebb, and the international community (barring China) looks at Pakistan as the epicentre of terror and Islamic fundamentalism.

With the world fast realising the danger rising Islamic fundamentalism poses to civil society and global peace, Pakistan’s position is surely becoming untenable with every passing day. If Pakistan continues on its beaten track of being a petri dish of terror, training and arming suicide bombers and exporting them to the rest of the world, there is a real chance that Pakistan will be the eighth country in American President Donald Trump’s list.

In fact, there are two issues—one, is Sharif genuine in his efforts to cleanse Pakistan of fundamentalism? Second, even if the answer is yes, is it feasible to do so, given the divisive intellectual paradigm responsible for its birth through a blood-soaked Partition and the way the country has been nursed for over six decades on a diet of hate and bigotry.

Will the military-mulla combine give a free hand to civil society to continue with reforms within the Islamic society, a precondition for any possible improvement in its relationship with India?

Those who know Sharif’s record and remember Kargil are surely going to doubt his sincerity. Fundamentalism in Pakistan, using terrorists as ‘strategic’ assets and persecution of religious and ethnic and language minorities—all these sins have their origin in the vicious mindset that motivated a large section of pre-Independence Muslim society to agitate for and achieve an Islamic Pakistan. A leopard can’t change its spots.

By Balbir Punj

Former Rajya Sabha member and Delhi-based commentator on social and political issues