Book review: People Like Us

Book review: People Like Us

A book on the consistent marginalisation of Pakistan’s religious minorities is a warning about the dangers of majoritarianism.


Book: Purifying The Land of The Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities
Author: Farhanaz Ispahani
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 254
Price: Rs 499

Post 9-11, the global narrative about Pakistan has been focused on terrorism, which both emanates from the country and targets the country. The rise of religious intolerance in Pakistan has run concurrent to the rise in terror. But despite the intense focus on India’s western neighbour, its treatment of religious minorities remains largely unexplored.

This void has now been filled by Farhanaz Ispahani’s book, Purifying The Land of The Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities, which tracks Pakistan’s journey of majoritarian religiosity from its formation in 1947 to the current perilous situation. Ispahani traces the decline of religious minorities from 23 per cent at the time of Partition to 3 per cent now, in four distinct phases.


The first phase is after the creation of a Muslim state of Pakistan from 1947 to 1951, which witnessed a massive decline in the population of Hindus and Sikhs because of Partition. Ispahani identifies March 1949 as the critical point when Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan moved the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly, which declared the objective of Pakistan’s constitution to be the creation of an Islamic state. While Liaquat and his colleagues thought that they had given the Islamists what they wanted, for Maulana Maududi and others of his ilk, the resolution

marked the process of eradicating non-Muslim influences from the Pakistani state and society.

The consolidation of Pakistan’s Islamic identity followed during Ayub’s and Yahya’s dictatorships between 1958 and 1971. Government school textbooks rejected pluralism, and Pakistani identity was inextricably linked to Islam. The loss of half of its population and two-fifths of its territory in 1971 created a physically contiguous Pakistan, with an even smaller percentage of religious minorities. Pakistan’s leaders responded to the loss by attempting to build a nation around Islamisation.

This set the stage for ZA Bhutto, who, though a liberal in personal life, chose to legislate against minorities. Succumbing to a demand which had first been made by the mullahs in 1950s, Bhutto brought a draconian constitutional clause which declared Ahmadis non-Muslim. As with Liaquat earlier, Bhutto thought that he could satisfy the clergy but he only opened the path for further concessions. It was a slippery slope.

After Bhutto’s execution, General Zia took it to another level and Pakistan became a de facto Sunni state, which actively targeted religious minorities, including Shias. The use of Pakistan as a base for the Afghan mujahdieen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, with the active support of the United States and Saudi Arabia, put the country on a path of extremist majoritarian Islamism. Finally, in the 1990s, with the Pakistani state-sponsored jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, sectarian terrorism turned to the export of terrorism into the region. This has continued to plague Pakistan since, with innocent Pakistanis suffering the consequences of policies pursued by their leaders in the last 69 years.

Ispahani’s grandfather, Mirza Abol Hassan Ispahani, was a close associate of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Pakistan’s first ambassador to the United States, and she was an MP from Pakistan People’s Party in the last government. Her husband, Husain Haqqani, was Pakistan’s ambassador to the US in the same period. It is thus no surprise that she is sympathetic to Jinnah and the Bhuttos, while bringing a harsher spotlight on the military dictators and Nawaz Sharif.

Her focus on Jinnah’s speech of August 11, 1947, where he spoke of a religiously inclusive Pakistan, does not take into account other evidence to the contrary. In his book Creating a New Medina, historian Venkat Dhulipala has shown that even though Jinnah was an unobservant Muslim, he had no qualms in employing religious rhetoric or utilising the services of the ulema in his quest for Pakistan.

This bias, however, does not take away from the larger purpose served by Ispahani’s book. It serves as a lesson and warning for those who believe in fusing majoritarian religious identity with national identity, and wish to treat religious minorities as lesser citizens. Purifying The Land of The Pure serves as a reminder that once the state and the society start conceding ground to majoritarian religious bigots, it will lead to where Pakistan has landed today.