Community of the Marginalized: A State of Pakistani Christians

October 3, 2011

Talks & Interviews

Tahir Kamran

: Dr Tahir Kamran, the Iqbal Chair at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge Centre of South Asian Studies and former Chairperson, Department of History Government College University delivered a talk on “Community of the Marginalized: A State of Pakistani Christians” at the Centre for Public Policy & Governance on March 9, 2011.

Kamran opened his talk by asking a pertinent question; why did the majority minority discourse start in Pakistan when its founder had clearly envisioned and pledged to make it a democratic and pluralistic State? Then he contextualized the present to draw the attention of the participants by referring to incidents like Shantinagar, Khanewal, Gojra, Sumbrial, Kasur, Blasphemy Law and the recent assassination of the Federal Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, thus, putting onus on social scientists, particularly, historians to reflect and explore citizenship rights and responsibilities as propped up by majority-minority discourse.

Kamran argued that it was the transformation of the empire into a Nation-State system through colonial modernity introduced by the British in undivided India that gave rise to the majority minority phenomenon. The British employed their own methodology to produce knowledge and to redefine India through census, ethnographic surveys and gazetteers. In the case of Punjab, the majority minority discourse was set into motion though the introduction of separate electorates in 1883.

Quoting Jinnah’s speech of 11th August 1947 to the Constituent Assembly “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State”, he argued that the Founder envisioned a pluralistic Pakistan. With these words, Kamran observed, Jinnah abandoned his separatist politics and embarked on a path to create a plural polity that accommodated religious and cultural differences. He neither wanted Pakistan to be an Islamic nor a Muslim State but instead a democratic State where all citizens had equal rights regardless of religious belief, caste, class or ethnicity. The elevation of Jogindar Nath Mandal, a member of the scheduled caste to president of the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan also pointed towards how Jinnah was envisaging Pakistan’s future.

“In the case of Punjab, the major-ity minority discourse was set into motion though the introduction of separate electorates in 1883.”

Reflecting on the role of Christians in the independence struggle, Kamran opined that books produced by Pakistani Christian scholars on the role of their community altogether presented a different discourse to the existing main stream knowledge about the freedom struggle available to students and scholars. Punjabi Christians had sided with the Muslim League during the freedom struggle against the Congress majority rule because the Muslim League represented minorities in undivided India. The first instance could be traced to 1928 when the Christian leader L. Ilea Ram along with the Muslim League boycotted the All Parties Conference called by Moti Lal Nehru. The March 1940 Lahore Resolution meeting became a benchmark of Christian-Muslim League cordiality. According to Ch. Chandu Lal, thousands of Christians participated in the annual Muslim League meetings. Jinnah hailed this cooperation and paid special attention to the effective representation of minorities in his 14 points of the Lahore Resolution. The Christians continued their unconditional support to the Muslim League in their struggle for freedom. Recognizing this spirit of Christian community’s support, Jinnah participated in a thanksgiving organized at the Holy Trinity Church, Karachi as Pakistan came into existence.

He further added that the role of Christians as citizens of Pakistan soon after independence was commendable and note worthy. Faced with a gigantic refugee crisis, inadequate shelter, scarce food in Lahore and other transit points, and monsoon rains creating an epidemic of the worst kind, Christians extended their help to the 7.5 million Pakistani migrants living in refugee camps. 70-75% of the paramedic staff at the time was Christian; Christian educational institutions provided shelter to the many homeless refugees, case in point being the hostels of FC College (closed at the time), which were converted into a full fledged hospital known as United Christian Hospital. Additionally, prominent Christian Women—to name a few– Ms. S. P. Singha, Ms. Najum-uddin and Ms Soba Khan who worked with the Red Cross along with hosts of Young Women Christian Association workers facilitated helpless migrants from India to Pakistan. It was sad and ironic that these fraternal relations were not duly reciprocated by the Muslim League leadership after Jinnah.

Kamran then traced the marginalization of minorities in Pakistan by listing three historical benchmarks; the Objectives Resolution (OR) topped his list (which was made part of the Constitution in 1985). He considered the passing of OR as a marked deviation from Jinnah’s vision of the Pakistani State. He cited Justice Munir’s Book From Jinnah to Zia who had observed that Jinnah visualized Pakistan as a modern democratic state with sovereignty resting in the people. Kamran pointed out that prominent Christians, like, Dr. Michael Nazir Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, was apprehensive about the implications that Objectives Resolution could have for minorities, calling it a “Trojan Horse”. Similarly Joshua Fazaldin apprehended that without constitutional protection, the clause could be used to consign non-Muslims to zimmi status. The OR was perceived carrying exclusionary over tones for minorities.

When minorities from East Pakistan (Hindus) voiced their unease on OR and presented 12 amendments, their reservations were cast aside. Prem Hari Varma demanded that the motion be circulated for eliciting public opinion. Another non-Muslim member Chandra Chatupadia also pleaded for more time arguing that they had only received this notice four days back, did not have the time to fully understand the implications of some paragraphs and thus would require study, consultation and deliberation with both Muslim and non-Muslim friends. Much to the dismay of minorities, the Objectives Resolution was tabled on March 7, 1949 and hurriedly passed on March 12, without any meaningful discussion or consultation among the members. This was the first step towards the marginalization of minorities by the majority community. Thus the majority-minority fault line crystallized just after 18th months of Pakistan’s independence as all Muslim members with the exception of Mian Iftikhar-uddin voted in favor of the motion while all minority members voted against it.

“Christian educational institu-tions provided shelter to the many homeless refugees, case in point being the hostels of FC College (closed at the time), which were converted into a full fledged hos-pital known as United Christian Hospital.”

After its passing, the Constituent Assembly instituted numerous committees to work out the details of the constitution which used the OR as a directive principle of State policy. The 1956 Constitution epitomized the deviation from the pluralist vision of Pakistan’s founder as Article 27, outlining the rights of each citizen to qualify for appointment in the service of Pakistan irrespective of his/her religious denomination; Article 28, ensuring the rights of everyone to preserve and promote his own language, script or culture without religious discrimination were withheld from the minorities. Despite stark differences between the 1956 and 1962 constitutions, OR was retained as a preamble along with other Islamic provisions. The system of basic democracies which formed the electoral college of the President, National & Provincial Assemblies from the lowest level public representation was further detrimental to the interest of minorities as it drastically reduced the chances for Christians to successfully contest elections to the Provincial or National Assemblies. Ayub Khan also abolished the 5 % quota in government services, technical and educational institutions that the Muslim League had specified for Christians. Additionally nullification of the provision of 2 acres of agricultural land to Christian families of farm laborers that had been agreed after Pakistan’s founding further snapped the opportunities for Christians to rise to the level of economic viability.

“…the majority-minority fault line crystallized just after 18th months of Pakistan’s independence as all Muslim members with the excep-tion of Mian Iftikhar-uddin voted in favor of the motion while all minority members voted against it.”

During the 1960s, there was some stir among the Christians and a number of organizations were formed including the Pakistan Masihi League in 1964, the Conventional Masihi League, the Pakistan Christian Democratic Party and Pakistan Christian National League but all failed to make any significant contribution for the community. The Masihi Majlas-Amal was an exception as it did take the streets but still Christian voices against discrimination all went in vain. Christians were even accused of spying for the enemy during the 1965 war. Interestingly Gen. Yahya Khan showed minority friendly attitude when he appointed Justice Cornelius as Minister for Law & Parliamentary Affairs and assigned him the task to frame a new constitution for Pakistan. However, the constitution could not be framed because of the fall of Dhaka and opposition from Bhutto and the head of Jamaat-e-Islami. The last nail in the coffin for the status of minorities was the decrease in their ratio from 23% to almost 2.7% with the loss of the eastern wing providing an opportunity for the extreme right to assert their position and influence. Further, the nationalization of educational, social and cultural institutions during the Bhutto era was a death knell to the financial status of the Christian community. Despite nationwide protests and killing of two Christian protestors in Rawalpindi, the protests could not gather the needed support from the majority and fizzled out as the government forcefully took control of the institutions.

Kamran listed Blasphemy Law as the second benchmark towards the marginalization of minorities in Pakistan. This came about in the aftermath of Zia’s Islamization, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, emergence of Imam Khomeini leading to the mobilization of Shia in Pakistan, funneling of money by USA, Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries to support Jihad in Afghanistan, financial support to Madrassas and the rise of the Ahl-e-Hadis sect to the discomfort of liberals in Pakistan. He suggested that the Blasphemy Law which had drastic impact on minorities especially Christians had no connection to Islamic history as there was no mention of blasphemy in the Quran. It was rather a Judo-Christian connotation that the Muslims had co-opted. Nobody in South Asia had ever heard of this law before 1860 when the British first promulgated it. It was revised in 1927 following the Ghazi Ilumdin Shaheed case when the 295A clause was added. However it was note worthy that from 1927-1986 only 6 cases were registered under this law while after 1986 when 295C was promulgated, the number of cases increased to nearly 6,000 mostly implicating Muslims.

The third benchmark was the promulgation of Separate Electorates also by General Zia-ul Haq. The real issue was political as the regime feared that if political participation was allowed, the minorities would vote for Pakistan People’s Party. It was withdrawn during the tenure of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Kamran’s contention was that all three benchmarks were not passed democratically by legislatures while the last two were passed by a single individual, thus providing hope that the democratic process would eventually undo them. Concluding his talk, he remarked that these critical benchmarks had very strong imprint on the history of Pakistan and on society. He asserted that they had given rise to sectarianism, intolerance and violence in society.

While answering a question referring to contradictions in Jinnah’s stance before and after independence, Dr. Kamran stated that contradictions were part of history and human life and thus could not be discounted altogether. He argued that Jinnah being an intelligent politician knew the practicalities and realities of governing a newly independent nation. He understood that for Pakistan to be a viable State it had to be democratic involving the skills and human resource of the minority communities. Both in Punjab and Sindh, the commercial and economic classes who could gear the economy were non-Muslims. Similarly he was also aware that all Muslims could not migrate to Pakistan and their welfare and safety in India was a top priority. India and Pakistan had mutual consultation on legislation for the security of minorities in both countries. Thus his speech to the Constituent Assembly had the background of commitments made to the United Provinces (UP) Muslim notables staying behind in India and of wanting the minority communities to stay back and help build Pakistan

“…from 1927-1986 only 6 cases were registered under this law while after 1986 when 295C was promulgated, the number of cases increased to nearly 6,000 mostly implicating Muslims”

Answering another question referring to Pakistan as a State with a confused ideology, Kamran responded that this confusion was a product of the notion that Pakistan while being a Nation-State was created in the name of Islam, which was a contradiction in terms. He argued that the Nation-State system was a modern concept and Eurocentric, which was transplanted to colonies and thus was a new phenomenon for non-Europeans. Muslim political philosophy had no concept of Nation-State as Muslims had only ruled empires. Thus the transition from empire to Nation-State had become problematic and required hard work to change the mindset of the people.

In answering a question regarding the education system introduced by the British, Kamran stated that in his opinion the education introduced by the British was not a liberating enterprise because it had no connection with society’s cultural ethos. He suggested taking a leaf out of the India book which had managed to come up with its own modernity by producing its own knowledge. He argued that producing knowledge of one’s own self and representing oneself instead of allowing others to represent you was the first step towards education as liberating experience. The responsibility lied on the intelligentsia, the academics and universities as they were completely missing in the public discourse.

“…producing knowledge of one’s own self and representing one-self instead of allowing others to represent you was the first step towards education as liberating experience.”