In recent years, Pakistan has increasingly invested in renovations to both Sikh gurdwaras and Hindu temples, but structural problems still exist with its minorities.
On the morning of December 7 1992, a mob gathered in the courtyard of the Valmiki Hindu temple in Anarkali Lahore, one of the two functional Hindu temples in the city, which had a considerable Hindu population before the creation of Pakistan in 1947, including several functioning temples.
According to mythology, the origin of Lahore, the second-most populous city in Pakistan, is attributed to the son of the Hindu deity, Ram. During Partition riots, communities that had lived together for generations were torn asunder, with the majority of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs, forced or choosing to migrate to India.
A day before the gathering in Lahore, news of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India, had dominated headlines. Led by the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a mob had brought down this historic mosque. They claimed the mosque had been created after destroying a Hindu temple that marked the place of birth of the Hindu deity, Ram.
In retaliation to the destruction of the mosque, hundreds of mobs gathered all over Pakistan seeking to ‘avenge’ desecration of the mosque. Numerous Hindu temples were destroyed, as the state quietly looked on. Like numerous other Hindu temples, most of which were either abandoned or taken over by people to be used as residences and for other purposes, the Valmiki Temple in Anarkali was looted, destroyed and then burned.
Carved out of British-India, the two countries of India and Pakistan became Hindu and Muslim dominated respectively. While India shocked by consciously defining itself as a ‘secular’ country, Pakistan whole-heartedly embraced its Muslim identity.
On the one hand, this Muslim identity meant taking up Islamic symbols and the Islamisation of state institutions, on the other hand, it was defined in opposition to the ‘Hindu identity’.
Festivals that had Hindu origin, words which had entered the vernacular via Sanskrit, and other customs that were perceived to be part of ‘Hindu culture’ were jettisoned. The phenomena gained momentum particularly in the aftermath of the 1965 and 1971 wars with India. Hindu became synonymous with India, the enemy.
Anti-Hindu rhetoric gained currency in public discourse, including the education system, with Hindus being labelled as ‘cunning’, ‘scheming’, ‘deceptive’ and ‘mischievous’ in school textbooks that were taught to young students all across the country. As these children grew up the narratives became part of the worldview of the politicians, bureaucrats, judges, army officers and media representatives. With the Hindu minority in Pakistan dwindling, generations of Pakistanis grew up without ever encountering a Hindu in their social setting. ‘Hindu’ became a distorted figment of their imagination rather than an actual person. In this environment, acts of violence against the minuscule Hindu minority, including forced conversion, and the property grabbing of Hindu temples went unnoticed.
The situation began to change in the last couple of decades under the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf. With Pakistan in limelight in the aftermath of 9/11 and the war on terror, the state was desperate to project a more ‘progressive’ image of the country.
Calling it ‘Enlightened Moderation’, the Musharraf government particularly reached out to the religious minorities and oversaw the renovation of a few Sikh gurdwaras and Hindu temples. For example the ancient Hindu temple of Katas Raj in Punjab was renovated and opened to pilgrims. Similarly a historical Hindu temple in Islamabad was renovated and made part of the ‘model village’ of Saidpur. With the patronage of the state, the media responded as well, increasing the coverage of minority issues in Pakistan.
In 2008, Pakistan elected a civilian government, which continued the promotion of this ‘soft image’. Many more Sikh gurdwaras and Hindu temples were renovated. Just last month, a historic Hindu temple in Sialkot was renovated. The action received widespread appreciation.
It seems as if the state which in 1992 had looked on passively as mobs destroyed Hindu temples has taken a swift turn and is now actively protecting its Hindu heritage - a far cry from what is has happened across the border during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s tenure in office.
While these actions are praiseworthy and do to some extent represent a qualitative change in how the state views itself, it needs to be kept in mind that these actions are more symbolic than they are a systematic change.
The fact remains that the Hindu minority of Pakistan is a persecuted minority. The forced conversion for many Hindu girls is a widespread issue and often representatives of the state are silent spectators as these atrocities occur.
The education system remains problematic, continuing to depict Hindus in an ‘otherised’ form. Journalists and sometimes politicians often resort to an ‘anti-Hindu’ language when tensions flare with India. The Pakistani identity it seems is still deeply rooted in separation from the ‘Hindu identity’.
While lip service is paid to the need to secure rights for religious minorities in Pakistan, with the renovation of a handful of Hindu temples as an example of this, the social structures that result in this persecution and exclusion remain intact.
These acts might win the state accolades but it hardly changes the reality of religious minorities in Pakistan.
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