A matter of respect by Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani

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Today every Pakistani political leader actively participates in religious ceremonies of non-Muslims, such as Holi, Diwali and Christmas. Recently, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi also attended the Hinglaj Prat Asthan ceremony of the Hindu community in Ghotki, Sindh.

However, there is a strong perception in the international community that the non-Muslim population in Pakistan is under-threat. Recently, the US enlisted Pakistan in a special watch list for ‘severe violations of religious freedom’. This was not the first time that something like this had happened as similar reports have emerged in the past too. But instead of just rejecting these reports, the solution is to find reasons due to which the world points fingers at us. And being the patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council and a non-Muslim parliamentarian, I feel it is my national responsibility to express my views on this sensitive issue.

Pakistan is supposed to be a Muslim majority democratic country. Religious freedom, both in an Islamic and a democratic country, is an essential part of society. On various occasions, I referred to the Charter of Medina which ensures equal civic rights for non-Muslims. There can be no two opinions that non-Muslims had autonomy and religious freedom in Medina – the first Islamic society of the world. Similarly, the Quaid-e-Azam wanted all Pakistani citizens, regardless of whether they belonged to a minority or a majority, to play their due role in transforming the newly-established country into a model for developed, prosperous and peaceful countries.

Hindu politician Jogandra Nath Mandal was one of the most prominent non-Muslim who was a part of the Pakistan Movement. There is also a long list of sacrifices and contributions of non-Muslim Pakistani citizens. The late Justice Rana Bhagwandas is known as a pride of this country’s judiciary because of his honesty, commitment and principles.

Although the Quaid-e-Azam always emphasised on a united nation but it is extremely unfortunate that after his sad demise we divided ourselves into majority and minority communities. Today, every political party has a minority wing. Instead of ensuring genuine representation of non-Muslims in parliament, blue-eyed candidates from religious minorities are imposed on the basis of personal likings and disliking. Such so-called non-Muslim representatives neither have their roots in the community nor do they have the courage to represent Pakistan on an international level. In my view, General Musharraf introduced reserved seats in violation of the Quaid-e-Azam’s vision, and also created hatred and division among the Pakistani society. The democratic solution, following the example of the Azad Kashmir Assembly, is to have at least 15 constituencies from where non-Muslim candidates can contest elections.

Similarly, the Sindh Assembly unanimously passed a bill to prevent forced conversions and marriages but a few extremist non-democratic elements succeeded in having it withdrawn, and there is no chance for this much-awaited bill to be implemented in the near future. Such incidents send negative messages to the international community. For 70 years, Pakistani Hindu community was living without a Hindu Marriage Act. In case of kidnappings, poor victims’ families had no option to seek legal justice. It was after tireless efforts that the Hindu Marriage Act was passed by the parliament, although much was compromised.

Some misleading content in our school curriculum is also a root cause of intolerance; one example can be the way the Somnath Temple incident is depicted. In this regard, I believe that the seriousness of our political parties and implementation of the Supreme Court’s June 19th, 2014 detailed decision can bring about positive results.

It is quite natural that a person who has an emotional affiliation with their property is able to look after it effectively. After the partition, the then leadership of Pakistan and India had a mutual understanding on the issue of evacuee property. Till today, India appoints a Muslim parliamentarian to look after the property that belongs to Muslims. Similarly, Israel appoints an Arab Israeli Muslim citizen to take care of holy places of Muslims. But our SC’s recent remarks about the performance of the Evacuee Trust Property Board are eye-opening for all of us. I strongly support the appointment of a Hindu bureaucrat of above grade-20 or a Hindu retired judge for this important post.

The international community also observes that non-Muslims in Pakistan are being ignored in various consultation processes related to national issues. There was no representation of non-Muslims in the All Parties Conference (APC) called for formulating the National Action Plan, whereas other examples include formulation of the 18th amendment and electoral reforms committees. This same situation can be observed in majority of other institutes.

We need to ensure active participation of non-Muslim citizens on the basis of merit. Appointing qualified non-Muslims as heads of national institutes, such as the planning commission, the State Bank, PTA, OGRA and PEMRA, etc, can project a positive image of Pakistan. A non-Muslim Pakistani envoy in the West is in a better position to handle such allegations. To counter international conspiracies, we need to keep unity in our ranks and establish a relation of respect, brotherhood and tolerance with every fellow citizen.

The writer is a member of the National Assembly and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council.

Twitter: @RVankwani

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