In the middle of an escalating political crisis, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chose a Hindu shrine in Pakistan’s political heartland — Punjab — to warn hardliners against preaching animosity. He called hate-mongering unlawful and pledged welfare of minorities, while reaffirming his belief in equal citizenship, after inaugurating a water filtration plant following a Hindu ritual at Katas Raj on January 11. Sharif’s visit to the centuries’ old complex associated with Shiva coincided with daily hearings in an offshore assets case against him that could lead to his disqualification and upend his government.
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An unfazed Sharif’s visit to Katas came a month after he re-named a centre at a top university after Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, who belonged to the persecuted Ahmadiyya community. It was the latest in a series of measures Sharif has taken to reach out to minorities and liberals. In September, his government got the Hindu Marriage Bill passed, overcoming years of inertia, largely due to ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) lawmaker Ramesh Kumar Vankwani’s efforts. Earlier, on March 8, Pakistan’s parliament passed Vankwani’s resolution declaring Diwali and Holi as public holidays. Five months earlier, in November 2015, Sharif promised Hindus that he would support them even if their oppressors were Muslims, at a Diwali function that began with the recitation of Gayatri Mantra and the Quran.
In February 2016, Punjab’s PML-N government passed the Women’s Protection Act against domestic, psychological and sexual violence besides executing Governor Salman Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri. The measures were seen as part of efforts to deal with malignant extremism following the Peshawar school massacre that also led to the formulation of the National Action Plan (NAP) to root out terrorism. The Punjab government separately passed a legislation removing a lacuna in the law that allowed people convicted of honour killings to get away provided families of the victims pardoned them.
A combination of factors has driven Sharif’s liberal policies. As an infrastructure-obsessed, pragmatic businessman-politician, Sharif is acutely aware of his country’s poor global image that impedes foreign investments. Sharif has piloted a series of big-ticket infrastructure projects, like a network of motorways, since liberalising Pakistan’s economy in the 1990s. But Sharif’s economic vision would remain unfulfilled until the image problem persists. The realisation has also driven his pragmatic India policy, which has put him in the crosshairs of the establishment, cut short his two tenures besides leading to his imprisonment and exile.
The brutal but waning Taliban insurgency, too, has played a part in jolting Pakistani political class into action. This was reflected in the multi-partisan NAP that includes a pledge to “stop religious extremism and to protect minorities”. There appears to be a realisation that terrorism cannot be defeated just militarily. However, Pakistan’s intentions in tackling extremism that threatened to tear it apart before the anti-Taliban Zarb-e-Azab operation would be suspect as long as minorities are mistreated.
A change in the narrative on minorities and women also has a resonance in western capitals, where many still believe fates of Pakistani governments are determined. Western powers played a key role in negotiating the National Reconciliation Ordinance that offered amnesty to tainted politicians and allowed Asif Ali Zardari to become the president in 2008. Many believe Zardari has a secret understanding with Sharif on ruling Pakistan alternately with the West’s blessings.
Besides, the minority outreach can bring Sharif electoral dividends particularly in Sindh, where a majority of Pakistani Hindus live. Non-Muslim — mainly Hindu and Christian — voters are concentrated in 15 districts of Sindh and Punjab and play a key role in altering electoral fortunes. An overwhelming 1.39 million out of 1.49 million Hindu voters are concentrated in Sindh while one million out of 1.32 million Christian voters live in Punjab. Places in Sindh like Umerkot, Tharparkar, Mirpurkhas, Tando Allahyar, Tando Mohammad Khan and Matiari have between 49 and 13 per cent Hindu voters.
Sindh has been a stronghold of Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which counts Hindus among its key vote banks. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Sharif, who have been trying to make inroads into Sindh, attended Diwali celebrations separately in Sindh ahead of local polls in 2015. In Karachi, Sharif became the first prime minister to attend Diwali festivities during which he announced the construction of a hospital named after spiritual leader Bhagat Kunwar. Khan attended festivities in Umerkot a day after Diwali, and said they will take “such care of minorities, make them equal citizens, that Narendra Modi would be ashamed of himself over what is happening in India”.
Bilawal Bhutto, the PPP chief, joined the Hindus for Diwali festivities in Mithi and pledged to continue celebrating the festival along with Eid under Pakistan and the PPP’s flags. His government in Sindh passed a law outlawing forced conversions on the Hindu community’s demand a month later.
Whatever may be the reasons, Sharif has begun well. But he has a long way to go to undo the otherisation of minorities. Abuse of the draconian blasphemy law is a constant reminder of how Pakistan has failed its minorities. Asia Bibi, the poor Christian woman whose defence cost Taseer his life, is still imprisoned under the law that continues to cast a shadow on public pledges of equal citizenship. Pakistan needs to walk the talk sooner before it gets too late.