Minority rights

by Arifa Noor

PERHAPS 2024 was always meant to be the year voters were going to knock some sense into those who grew complacent in their power, especially in South Asia. Indeed, we Pakistanis were not the only ones who misjudged an election; our neighbours and frenemies managed to do something similar, though the worst offenders on both sides were those who get paid to pontificate in front of the TV cameras.

In India, as in Pakistan, the government might have ended up with someone `expected` to win without the jugglery of Form 47 but only after surprise, excitement and consternation.

The BJP, which had expectations of a `grand` win, didn`t even manage a simple majority in the Lower House; its government will now be dependent on allies, who, it is expected, will not just extract their pound of flesh but also restrain any big ideological plans of the ruling party.

Some are going even further. They hope a stronger opposition as well as bigger government allies can begin some kind of a rollback of the unwelcome legislation done in the recent past.

Even more critical analysis questions whether the government will survive.

But before this next stage, the autopsies and post-mortems of the voters` choice continues.

Was it the unequal economic growth of the past 10 years, where unemployment and inflation had taken the sheen off the BJP, despite the extensive social welfare schemes? Or did the government`s assertion of making changes to the constitution scare away voters who feared the abolition of reservations? Is there some truth to the stories of the RSS not being too keen on the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine returning for a third time? Or was it simply local politics, where UP, the friction between the BJP men in Delhi and the chief minister of the state, and a strong INDIA alliance continue to be discussed.

It is perhaps a combination of factors, which vary from state to state. Those who keep a close eye on Indian politics argue that no single factor can explain the result across India. But the Modi brand has taken a hit.At the same time, there have been sobering analyses pointing to how much has changed in the past decade, especially for the beleaguered Muslim citizens. This is brought home by an excellent story by Al Jazeera, which reported on how political parties are so wary of being called pro-Muslim by the BJP that they have been missing from the electoral discourse generally, except for dog-whistling by offenders. A similar theme emerges from the interview of Mujib ur Rehman (the author of Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims) by Karan Thapar for The Wire.

Sobering though these pieces of journalism are, they also make uncomfortable reading for Pakistanis. For there is something so familiar and yet unfamiliar in hearing the debate over the present and future of a religious minority.

While uncomfortable because our own history vis-à-vis minority communities is no better, it is even more unsettling that no election in our recent history has led to a debate on whether or not the poll could prove to be a turning point for inclusivity and plurality.

One reason for this is that because we are so caught up in fair elections, civil-military relations and governance, everything else passes unnoticed.

Second, the state has been using religion, for the purposes of legitimacy, for so long that no mainstream political party can take a nuanced, let alone radically different, position on minority rights. Condemnation of violence is just about all that most of us are capable of. This is why few notice the foregone conclusion: religious minorities have been made invisible in our electoral politics. This is no longer `news` in our neck of the woods. In fact, in Pakistan, it is perhaps easier to speak up for ethnic groups and their rights consider the Baloch and the interest political parties take in enforced disappearances when in the opposition. But even those who have borne the brunt of state excesses will turn a blind eye to the violence being carried out against the Christians in Sargodha or the recent killing of two Ahmadis.

Consider the coverage of Jaranwala, where, too, the Christian community had been attacked.

A largely `apolitical` caretaker cabinet was not averse to official visits to show solidarity with Pakistani citizens, while press coverage was also relatively substantial. However, even then, no `real` leadership turned up local or national.

Most of those who take part in elected politics stayed away.

By the time elections took place and a new government came to power, another tragic incident followed in Sargodha, where a mob attacked a Christian family. There were no visits by elected or government officials, and little condemnation was visible. Press coverage was actively discouraged. The recent HRCP report points this out.

That a political party is found to be involved, in one way or the other, in most of these incidents is not of concern to anyone. The TLP faces no censure from the state for the most part.

In the case of the Ahmadi community, which has been coming under attack increasingly, even press coverage is missing. Other than an English newspaper or human rights activists, few report on such horrifying incidents. Many are simply scared of a public discussion on the issue.

Consider the two Ahmadi men recently killed by a young man; the accused says he was motivated by what he saw on social media but chances are no draconian laws or firewalls will target hate speech, which will flourish unabated on the ground and in cyberspace.

It is hard to see if we will ever be able to find any light at the end of this proverbial tunnel.

And before I get attacked by those who are offended by comparisons, one way or the other, this was simply a lament -a collection of random thoughts which began with an election result and ended with multiple questions about a region that continues to grapple with the question of minority rights decades after gaining independence.

Acknowledgement: Published in Dawn News on 11th June 2024.

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