View from Pakistan: Never to return

Islamabad: Over the past 10 days yet another Ahmadi was lynched in Punjab while a Sikh trader was gunned down in Peshawar, the latest in a long list of targeted killings of those condemned for being outside the pale of “official” Islam. It is small wonder that so much of our time and energies are spent on lamenting what is undoubtedly a dismal state of affairs.
If for no other reason than to gain respite from the doom and gloom, I believe it is necessary to remind ourselves that things in this society looked and felt very different before the fateful politicisation of religion under the Raj.

Until 67 years ago, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Jews and a whole host of other confessional groups lived in all parts of northwestern India, and outnumbered Muslims in many regions. There were periodic episodes of conflict between those of different religious persuasions — mostly at the individual rather than collective level — but there was also a richness to social life that those of us born and bred in post-Partition Pakistan cannot imagine.

Popular culture was not distinguished as “Muslim” or “Hindu”, no matter what the two-nation theorists continue to claim. Those who are interested in the history of religion will know that some subcontinental faiths are actually hybrid versions of pre-existing ones, Sikhism the most obvious example. Indeed, regardless of one’s faith, places of religious worship were patronised across confessional divides. I dare say that atheists were as likely to be found taking in the sights and sounds of shrines and other cultural sites as anyone else.

In India today, one comes across such “anomalies”, because the Indian state has never insisted that it is the paragon of a world religion, notwithstanding the ongoing attempts of right-wing Hindu nationalists to capture and then mould the state in that very image. Our stunted imaginations do not, unfortunately, permit us to conceive that what is still commonplace in today’s India was also once commonplace in what became Pakistan.

Of course, India is hardly a paragon of religious tolerance, but my sense is that there are many Indians from across the religious divide who will stoutly defend the pluralism of that country.
Pakistan, on the other hand, have yet to develop anything resembling a consensus on what kind of society we wish to build, let alone a pluralist vision of the future. The secular liberal crowd claims to be the vanguard of pluralism but in aping the rhetoric of the American Empire ignores, wilfully or otherwise, the political and economic underpinnings of the religious right. The secularists may be committed to pluralism but also to elitism, and this is why they pose very little challenge to the populism of the Right.

A significant chunk of society has imbibed the state ideology and therefore thinks that Islam, and Muslim practice, is totally irreconcilable with the “infidels”. I cannot help but feel that the rampant sectarianism within the Muslim faith (in Pakistan) is a direct consequence of us not being exposed to the religious diversity that our previous generations were fortunate enough to experience.
It is certainly worth trying to imagine what it must have been like in the pre-Partition era; Muslim children celebrating Holi with their Hindu friends; being exposed to different written scripts, languages, foods, and forms of dress; developing a genuine appreciation for the religious sensibilities of all.

It is more than a little ironic that so many Pakistanis get a glimpse — admittedly a rather warped one — of such a society in their regular viewings of Bollywood movies. In other words, somewhere inside the embers of a plural society continue to burn, in spite of the ideological suffocations of the past seven decades.

I suspect that the generation of young people increasingly integrated into the globalised world through the new information technologies is, in any case, less parochial in its thinking. It is far removed from that dark period in the late 1940s and early 1950s when what was still a reasonably large community of Hindus in metropolitan centres like Karachi were forced to migrate.

Yet it is a rule of the human condition that our imagination rarely transcends what we have known, and our young people have grown up during and after the Zia years. What is most troubling about target killings of so-called “non-Muslims” is that they do not trigger a yearning for a society in which religion is not used as an instrument of violence. Could it really be that we have forever evicted such an idea from our heads and hearts, never to return?

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad

By arrangement with Dawn

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